The Elephant Keeper, Paperback
4.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


'I asked the sailor what an Elephant looked like; he replied that it was like nothing on earth.' In the middle of the 18th century, a ship docks at Bristol with an extraordinary cargo: two young elephants.

Bought by a wealthy landowner, they are taken to his estate in the English countryside.

A stable boy, Tom Page, is given the task of caring for them. 'The Elephant Keeper' is Tom's account of his life with the elephants.

As the years pass, and as they journey across England, his relationship with the female elephant deepens in a startling manner.

Along the way they meet incredulity, distrust and tragedy, and it is only their understanding of each other that keeps them together.

Christopher Nicholson's charming and captivating novel explores notions of sexuality and violence, freedom and captivity, and the nature of story-telling - but most of all it is the study of a profound and remarkable love between an elephant and a human being.




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Review by

This book is stunning. It's a beautiful tale of the love and respect that can exist between a human and an animal, and I found myself engrossed in it from start to finish. Tom Page is a groom in the 1770s, working in a big hall in Somersetshire where he was born and brought up. The Lord for whom he works acquires two elephants, near to death after a long voyage from the Indies. Tom names them Timothy and Jenny and, once they have recovered, builds a relationship with them (and in particular with Jenny) in which they fully understand one another. In effect, Tom can speak elephant! I wasn't sure what to expect when I started this book. I didn't know whether it would be a bit of a stuffy historical narrative, but it really isn't. Tom is commissioned by a later employer to write his story of life with the elephants and this is what the reader gets. The story is told by Tom throughout and I could feel his love for these gentle giants. The author really captured how intelligent elephants are and was able to convey their thoughts and feelings very well, through Tom's eyes and penmanship. I was moved to tears in more than one place by the story. The quality of the writing is superb, and I thought it was a wonderful book.

Review by

Set in 18th century England, this is the story of a boy who grows into adulthood as the keeper of at first two and later, a single elephant. The backdrop to the story follows two themes. The first is an insightful and at times confronting commentary on the social milieu of England at the time. The second is the growing 18th century fascination with exotic animals, imported into England to bring pleasure not only to the gentry, but also to the masses - and to suffer horrendously in the process. The author portrays sometimes with warmth and sometimes with menace, the differences between the classes, the power of the land owning gentry to make the life of the lower classes happy (occasionally) or abjectly miserable (more often) and the passive acceptance by the lower classes of their lot in life. The commentary on country and city (London) life is another well executed social contrast. The relationship between the keeper and his elephant/s is at first gently and sensitively developed but as the story progresses the author loses the constraint that was a strength in the earlier part of the novel. The keeper's relationship with the female elephant moves from one that is believable, to one that is a much less believable obsessional fantasy. There are quite lengthy "conversations" between man and beast, and the elephant experiences human like emotions. There are suggestions that at least in his dreams, the elephant is the object of the keeper's sexual fantasies. It is almost as though the elephant has transmogrified into a female human being. Quite why the author found it necessary to take this turn remains unclear. Is it an effort to explain the intensity of the keeper’s emotions and sense of responsibility for the elephant’s well being? Or to indicate that the keeper is losing his mind? Whatever, it was over the top, and it detracted from the overall experience of the read. The dual endings were an interesting, and I think successful device through which to conclude the story. It was the backdrop to the main story, with its cast of secondary characters (animal and human) in cameo roles that worked best for me, and gave the novel its strength. Overall, a good read that could have been memorable had the author been a little more disciplined in his plot development in the final third of the story.

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