With the publication of The Elephant Keepers’ Children this month, readers may expect another taut, chilling literary thriller by Peter Hoeg, the author of Smilla’s Sense of Snow.
They’re in for a surprise. The novel is a thriller of sorts, but it’s more humourous than frightening, more of an oddball caper than a mystery, and more of a coming-of-age story than a suspense yarn.
Precocious 14-year-old Peter relates the mysterious events surrounding the disappearance of his parents in a tale full of digressions, adolescent humour, and philosophical musings.
Peter’s father is the vicar of the church on Fino, a tiny fictional island off the Danish coast. His mother is the church organist, a computer whiz, and a mechanical genius with a gift for invention beyond what anyone in their congregation can imagine. Both parents are mysteriously involved in the upcoming “Grand Synod,” a religious conference of improbable size and importance that will bring leaders of every religion, including the Pope and the Dalai Lama, to Copenhagen.
Eccentric in the extreme, the parents have always been mysterious to their children. They are not elephant keepers, but rather swindlers and con artists, and have been in trouble with the authorities before for misdirection, trickery and all manner of hoodwinking.
However, when the parents go missing, something appears to be very off, so Peter, his sister Tilde, and their terrier dog Basker set off on a quest to track them down and uncover what dastardly deeds they might have planned.
Their search brings them into the orbit of a cast of deranged, grotesque and tragic characters who pop in and out of the narrative almost at random.
The tone throughout The Elephant Keepers’ Children is jauntily farcical, and the action is nonstop and zany. A corpse pops in and out of a wheelchair, a castle tunnel is oiled with soft soap, chases end in dead ends, and one dangerous confrontation follows another, all ending in general mayhem.
As Peter and Tilde get closer to the heart of the mystery, plots and conspiracies multiply towards a surprising and moving conclusion.
Under the madcap adventure story, Hoeg poses serious issues about neglected children, corrupt church officials, and the paths to intellectual and spiritual freedom. Mysterious, enigmatic, and at times just plain ludicrous, this is a comic, extravagant romp that may leave the reader both bewildered and endeared at once.
Some may be left with questions about how successfully the author has integrated his story with its thematic underpinnings, but will be happy to have taken this offbeat trip with him.
–– Maureen Curry is the chief librarian at the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.