The reason I picked up a copy of Christopher Nicholson’s The Elephant Keeper in an odd Bristolian bookshop one afternoon is because it had a pretty elephant on the front. I had never heard of the author, but I’d just finished my degree and hungered for a good novel that I could just read without having to write a bloody essay about it.
I was so pleased with my purchase that a week later, I contacted the author to inform him. To my great delight, he kindly sent me a deliciously fresh press copy of his latest novel Winter for me to read and review. I thought it would be pleasant to review them together – and here we are!
My favourite works of literature, film and television are usually those set in the past, when tea was served properly and the candwich had not yet been invented. The Elephant Keeper, shortlisted for the Costa Best Novel award in 2009, begins in eighteenth century Bristol and follows the story of Tom Page, a stable boy entrusted with the task of caring for two young elephants bought from cargo traders. As one might imagine in imperial England, tragedy awaits due to the cruel insensitivity of those around them and Tom must dedicate himself to their protection. The story is one of love, sexuality and violence, and is a heartwarming portrayal of the connection between animal and human.
It certainly isn’t a gloomy book, but after reading I was left with a sense of mourning for all those who suffered at the hands of ignorance during the British Empire. I have a strange fascination with this era simply because we achieved such an astonishing amount as a country, but in doing so we recklessly exploited, abused and corrupted anything that we could use to our advantage. The journey of Tom and his elephant explores the dark corners of Enlightened England, and the ease with which society can cast away something it once found remotely valuable.
The story of Winter is a fictional portrayal of the last living years of Thomas Hardy, and a psychological study of his strained relationship with his wife Florence. It also examines Hardy’s questionable feelings towards Gertrude Bugler, who played Tess in the first theatrical production of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1924. Gertrude was a local beauty living in Beaminster, Dorset, and after a quick Google I have discovered that not only did she live to the rather ripe age of 95, but we were also both alive at the same time for 7 months in 1992! That sounds a bit weird, but I like these things.
The novel presents a beautiful exploration of the themes of death, the afterlife and the fragility of human relationships. The perspective change in each chapter means that the reader does not have the chance to side with either character, but allows us to identify with both. It’s also a very appropriate novel to read at this time of year, especially with the irrationally tyrannical weather we’ve been exposed to in Britain recently. The cold hostility of Max Gate cottage, Hardy’s beloved home in Dorchester, is bleak and miserable, and the gloom of the looming trees outside brings a sense of claustrophobia to the story and the relationships within it.
The Elephant Keeper and Winter are both out now and are published by Fourth Estate.