Book Recommendation: The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Høeg
People who know me well know that one of my least favorite topics of conversation is religion. It varies in importance from person to person, so I find it impolite to probe into the religious workings or non-workings of the majority of individuals. Perhaps this has something to do with the extremes to which faith is wielded by a variety of people; why is it that talk of God is so frequently usurped as a means to an end rather than a means to improvement? It is this question that is poised so playfully at the center of The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Høeg.
Fourteen-year-old Peter Finø is brokenhearted. His dream girl, Conny, has been whisked away from their fictional Danish island, Finø, by stardom. His parents work in the church as pastor and organist and have a history of, shall we way, overdoing it in an effort to boost church attendance. Peter's older sister Tilte is obsessed with death and, as such, constantly thinking of ways to prepare herself and others for that eternal eventuality. His brother Hans is an oblivious stargazer whose infrequent gear shifts into rage could kill a man. The motley crew of characters is somewhat jumbled and happy, as families are, but let's not forget Basker III, the Finø family's pet dog who is always around but somehow never a burden.
Faith, or rather, a variety of faiths is one of Finø's defining factors – along with its mix of churches, 18th century abodes and a deep, dark forest. On Finø, Christianity is king, but many other religions exist peacefully alongside it and that means the children, more than anyone, are accepting of differing perspectives. This attitude is put to the test when a vast gathering of all the world's religions, The Grand Synod, takes the stage in Copenhagen, and a dismal plan is set in place to derail this global expression of religious collaboration and tolerance. As Peter, Tilte and the others slowly unravel the mystery of what threatens the Grand Synod, they must face their own fears, challenge authority and, worst of all, figure out their parents' role in the whole thing.
The Elephant Keepers' Children is a sort of meandering romp through a series of serious topics such as religion, death, drugs, crime, and sex. With little Peter at the helm, though, that which would feel heavy around the dinner table is surprisingly light and enjoyable through the eyes of a precocious teenager. Snarky, self-contradictory, soul-searching and unexpectedly wise, Peter is a lovable hero, whose bravery exceeds his size and whose deadpan criticism is so funny, it makes you wish you would be the subject of it sometime.
Classically speaking, detectives are not 14-year-old footballers and their 16-year-old aspiring therapist sisters. But Peter Finø and company lay that slow, clue-based, methodical investigator archetype to rest. Despite numerous flashbacks, asides, and ostensibly irrelevant details, The Elephant Keepers' Children keeps a steady pace, tackling at once the notion that children are less wise than adults, as well as many of the social issues that worry society today.
This is the sort of book that you want to see as a movie, if only to fall in love with the boy Peter and witness his hijinks as he goes from discovering his parents' disappearance to preventing a catastrophe. Then you realize that without the side trips into Peter and Tilte's pasts, without the history and the anecdotes, this story would be flat, uninteresting, and typical. But each of Peter's digressions comes full circle, and it is the mastery of weaving in Høeg's storytelling that makes The Elephant Keepers' Children pure magic.
Source: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.