Sunday, September 06, 2009

Review: The Elephant Keeper

The Elephant Keeper: A Novel
By Christopher Nicholson

Tom Page had been given an assignment, to write a history of the elephant. He was not to write a general history of the species, but one elephant in particular, Jenny. Tom was her keeper, and the first third of and the first third of Christopher Nicholson’s novel “The Elephant Keeper” is Tom’s history. The remaining two-thirds of Mr. Nicholson’s novel though quickly grows darker as Jenny, and by extension Tom, is purchased by a series of owners.

Set in the tumultuous late 1700’s of Georgian England, Mr. Nicholson has given his readers only the necessity of what his story requires. There is no mention of King George III or of the American Revolution. In fact, if only because of a scant mention here or there of the date, I dare say that Mr. Nicholson’s readers could have placed his story in almost any century from the 18th to the 21st, as he has created a world, as if within a bubble, where external events have no consequence to the story. Georgian England was on the brink of an identity crisis, but that is not the England of Mr. Nicholson’s novel.

As the remaining two thirds of “The Elephant Keeper” unfold, Tom and Jenny begin to communicate with each other, at first through commands and gestures, and slowly a sort of telepathic communication between the two emerges. Tom has grown to love Jenny, and has convinced himself that Jenny cannot survive without him. He pushes away the only girl who truly loves him to take care of his elephant. Is Tom the keeper of the elephant or is the elephant the keeper of Tom?

I was totally confused by the last chapter of Mr. Nicholson’s novel. I had been jarred by the switch in tone from the first third of the book to the last two-thirds, but nothing prepared me for a 200+ year flash-forward stroll through a museum to find Jenny’s articulated skeleton. Who is the chapter’s narrator? Has Tom somehow survived 200 years? And what purpose does this last chapter serve other than to completely confuse the authors readers?

“The Elephant Keeper” started off well, then grew darker, and ends up bordering on the realm of science fiction and fantasy. In the end I was left confused as to Mr. Nicholson’s purpose and theme of his story, and was left feeling unsatisfied when I finished reading it.

ISBN 978-0061651601, William Morrow, © 2009, Hardcover, 304 pages, $24.99

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