Bookmarks Issue: 

A-The Elephant KeeperThis is the debut novel by Christopher Nicholson, who is also a radio producer for the BBC. Many of his programs focus on the relationship between animals and people.

The Story: Before the age of zoos and nature programs, an elephant was probably still an unusual sight for the average person in Bristol, England. The Elephant Keeper tells the story of a fictional pair, Timothy and Jenny, who were among the first elephants imported there from India in the late 18th century. Their owner thinks he can use them to start some sort of ivory plantation, and he charges his servant Tom with the task of caring for the animals. The ivory plan doesn’t work out, of course, but Tom develops a bond with the elephants, and when Jenny is sold, he follows her, sending them on a journey through a country to which neither of them seems to belong.
Morrow. 298 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780061651601

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a coming-of-age story as well as a love story. The conversations between the innocent, yet wise Jenny and the often-confused Tom explore the very nature of storytelling and are more insightful than most how-to books about writing." Anne C. Barnhill

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Elephant Keeper is a novel for anyone who loves animals, and believes humans are not the only beings capable of experiencing love, laughter and fear. … Not a huge animal person? The rich details and poignancy of the story make it a worthwhile read anyway." Allecia Vermillion

Independent (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Jenny is a magnificent character, more vivid than the humans—even Tom, who never entirely rises from the page, despite his full repertoire of vulnerabilities, failings and secret fantasies. … Any stilted moments with the human characters are made up for by her, by other animals playing minor roles, and by the sheer richness of the story’s texture." Sarah Bakewell

Onion AV Club 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Todd VanDerWerff

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Christopher Nicholson’s enchanting first novel is full of the mingled affection and tragedy that have long marked our relationship with the world’s largest terrestrial animals. The Elephant Keeper is a strange tour of late 18th-century England, a natural history of elephants and the story of a most unusual friendship, all told with a touch of the otherworldly elegance and wit of Babar." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Had Christopher Nicholson simply tried to write a historical novel of the 18th century, critics probably would not have liked his book quite so much. Most of them found at least one aspect of the book that bothered them—from the occasional flat character to inconsistent pacing to episodes they felt didn’t make sense. But all were so charmed by the writing and by the way the author develops the characters of the pachyderms Timothy and Jenny, as well as their relationship to Tom, that they were happy to recommend the book even to those readers who aren’t animal people.