The Elephant Keeper eschews the simple sentimentality of most tales of animals and the men who love them in favor of a surprisingly piercing examination of what, exactly, would make a young man choose to mostly ditch his own kind and embark on an odyssey through late 18th century England with a pachyderm. While the novel occasionally falls too much in love with its own portrayal of its setting, that’s a forgivable offense in light of the way it deftly handles its two central characters, Tom Page and the elephant he cares for, Jenny.
Author Christopher Nicholson almost immediately seems to be stacking the deck in favor of Tom and Jenny, when the former happens upon the latter at the docks of Bristol, where a ship just in from Africa has brought all manner of wild animals, all of them dead or near death. As Tom slowly nurses Jenny and her brother, Timothy, back to health, it seems as though the novel will settle into a tale of man’s inhumanity toward those innocents who least deserve that inhumanity.
Instead, a curious thing happens. Circumstance drives Timothy and Jenny apart, and Tom chooses to stay with Jenny. When she, too, seems likely to be taken from him, Tom chooses to accompany her to another estate. As he makes his choice to follow his elephant, he breaks the hearts of other people who love him, often unintentionally. As the novel continues, turning into a travelogue of its setting more often than not, it settles into an account of how one man’s obsession can push him away from everything else. For a novel about the intense bond between two living things, a bond that sustains Tom and Jenny through incredible hardship, The Elephant Keeper features a tough-edged loneliness lurking just around its dark corners.
By the time Tom is in his 40s and Jenny is a shadow of her former self, forced to play a drum while trapped in a tiny circus, The Elephant Keeper’s tough-mindedness becomes strangely moving. As Tom embarks on a voyage to right wrongs and find a new home for Jenny, the book takes on something of the weight of a good allegory. And while Nicholson’s ending tries too hard to close the novel on a note of grace, what goes before is impressively clear-eyed about just how hard it is to be humane to other creatures, to other people and to yourself.