cover image The Elephant Keepers’ Children

The Elephant Keepers’ Children

Peter Hoeg, trans. from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Other Press, $27.95 (512p) ISBN 978-1-59051-490-0

Readers who expect another taut, chilling literary thriller by the author of Smilla’s Sense of Snow are in for a surprise. A thriller of sorts this is, but it’s more humorous than frightening, more of a 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 shaggy dog tale full of digressions, adolescent humor, and philosophical musings. Peter’s father is the vicar of the church on tiny Fino island, off the Danish coast; his mother is the church organist and a computer whiz advising the people who are planning a Grand Synod 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, but when they go missing, Peter and his older siblings, Tilte and Hans, fear that they’re involved in a plot to steal religious relics. The tone throughout is jauntily farcical, including characters Bodil Hippopotamus, Alexander Flounderblood, and Anaflabia Borderrud, whose nomenclature would make Dickens blush. 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. Peter is an engaging narrator; irreverent, insistently confidential, he’s prone to describing metaphysical states in which one can achieve spiritual peace. He calls his parents “elephant keepers” because “they want to know what God really is.” It turns out that nearly all the characters are elephant keepers of one sort or another, in Peter’s estimation. Under the madcap adventure story Hoeg poses serious issues about neglected children, venal church officials, and the paths to intellectual and spiritual freedom. (Oct. 23)