Peter Hoeg, Danish author best known for Smilla’s Sense of Snow, has created a fictional world in his new work, The Elephant Keeper’s Children, which not only entices readers to return to it again and again, but also encourages us to examine our reality. The story takes place partly on the fictional island of Fino and partly in Hoeg’s fictional realization of Copenhagen. Peter, our charming fourteen-year-old narrator, tells of the adventures of himself, his older siblings Hans and Title, and their dog Basker leading up to the “Grand Synod”, a religious conference of improbable size and importance. Peter’s parents are mysteriously involved in the Synod; he and his siblings are on a mission to save their parents from themselves.
The title seems somewhat ambiguous until Hoeg reveals the definition and importance of “elephant keepers.” They are present throughout the story and a force to be reckoned with. Like the definition of elephant keepers, much of this novel is revealed at exactly the most satisfying moment, at the point when readers (or this reader, at least) begin to become frustrated with our lack of insight into Hoeg’s complex world. This delayed effect made me think of Peter as a thoughtful host, who brings up business or unpleasantness only when his guests are comfortably seated with a cup of tea in hand. Needless to say, I felt a great deal of affection for Peter by the time I turned the final page.
Much of the joy of this book comes from the intimacy formed by Peter’s narration and the extent to which we, the readers, become invested in the outcome of his adventures. Peter shares his fears, his hopes, and his myriad of insights with us:
If we’d had more time, and if I’d been less shaken, I would have asked her for concrete examples of who exactly had ever changed the course of their lives in seven minutes, but now Tilte takes me by the arm and draws me over to the open window.
Other than Peter’s family, The Elephant Keeper’s Children is populated by a whole cast of wacky characters. Leonora Ticklepalate is a Buddhist nun who performs phone sex to pay the bills. Count Rickardt Three Lions is a close family friend, drug addict, and proprietor of the Fino drug rehabilitation facility. Alexander Flounderblood is the head of the Fino school district and Peter’s sworn enemy.
This book manages to be both highly entertaining and seriously thought provoking. I must also mention the flawless translation, which allows us to step into the streets of Copenhagen and to enjoy Hoeg’s play with words. Peter regales us with tales of his hilarious misdeeds on one page and delves into the true nature of spirituality on the next. I closed this book feeling wiser. I want to reopen this book when I am feeling lonely to find company among friends.
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