The Elephant Keeper’s Children

  • Peter Høeg
  • Other Press
  • 512 pages

Part magical realism, part young adult adventure, part philosophical treatise, this novel has the tonality of a PI’s report.

Reviewed by Hannah Oliver

The Elephant Keepers’ Children is not a book easily categorized. Part magical realism, part young adult adventure, part philosophical treatise, it has the tonality of a PI’s report. Living on the fictional island of Finø are Hans, Peter, and Tilte whose parents have gone missing…again. Peter serves as the narrator, Hans as the heartbreaker, and Tilte as the spiritual leader who will guide them out of the prison of everyday life. When Peter explains that it is really Tilte, and to some degree their grandmother, who have found “the door” out of “the prison,” I waited for the skeptical groan inside my head. Instead, I was delighted to find that author Peter Høeg has found a way out of the trap of fantasy versus reality and into a world where the edges are just hazy enough to contain recognizable government organizations and the fruit of childhood dreams.

Peter speaks to us directly, both patiently explaining his world to us lost adults and admitting his own frustrations with spirituality. “I’m trying to make you aware of the second just before you realize how special the situation is and then begin to think. Because the moment the thoughts come, you’re back in the cage again. That’s part of what’s so depressing about the prison.” Peter wins football matches with his mythical swiftness, interprets his sister’s encounters with the divine, and understands that his brother was simply born for another time. As Tilte says, “In Peter’s presence ... one sees reality conjugated in a multitude of ways. Yet there’s no getting away from the fact that he only just turned fifteen in May.” We trust Peter on this magical mystery tour because, though he has an excess of talent, his struggles are recognizably those of any teenage boy.

It is in this dance of contrast, the balance between incredible and credible, that Høeg has always excelled, though Elephant Keepers’ spiritual detective novel is a departure for him. What shines in this book is Høeg’s reminder of how often we underestimate children, disregarding their experiences as relevant to our own. Thus he brings a common trope of children’s literature to an adult novel.  Tilte and Peter are able to succeed in this world and guide us to the spiritual door partially because of their youth. Peter and Tilte share a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that helps them navigate through bureaucracy, kidnapping, doctrine and semiotics in a way that would cause Umberto Eco’s head to spin. As the novel exists in a concrete world and vague location, so too these teens are in the no man’s land of nonsensical adult rules and a firm childhood belief in mystical truth.

Finally, a fantastic cast of characters awaits you in these pages. There’s Pallas Athene, the Jaguar-driving, helmet-wearing performer/goddess who partially funds and inspires the children’s adventure partway through; that is, after they spend some quality time with the yellow-trousered, bisexual, wealthy, former heroin addict, Count Rickardt Three Lions. There are stern, dowager-like government and church officials who could give Judy Dench’s M a run for her moneypenny. The cast of characters blossoms and spawns ever outward. Though Høeg often simply mentions some of them in passing, their character is fixed forever in your mind. Høeg does this so easily because he understands that it is their relationships that make characters matter to the reader, rather than a laundry list of adjectives.

While those looking for a straightforward narrative will be exhausted by the book’s adventures, anyone willing to go on a bit of a journey will feel well guided by Høeg’s straight-forward dialogue and firm grasp of his play world. Adults may be unreliable, but the promise of the world beyond the door is sound. After the last chapter, you may find yourself pausing a bit more often to consider things that are bigger and beyond your ever-growing to-do list. This is the novel of the winter to restore your faith in the magic of human experience.

Hannah Oliver is a bookseller at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC. She holds an M.A. from American University in English and enjoys reading everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Raymond Chandler.

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