The other day I took my hardcover copy of Smilla’s Sense of Snow off the shelf. It’s a first edition, published in 1993 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. On the cover, there are two triangles—one light, one dark—and a rectangle with an eye in it, looking out at the viewer. I like books that stare back at me.
Smilla was such an unlikely best seller—an unconventional mystery, translated from the Danish, set in Copenhagen and Greenland, featuring a half-Inuit heroine on the trail of a killer who might or might not exist. I was a bookseller in 1993. I remember my colleagues and I reading this odd suspense novel with mounting excitement and a real sense of discovery: here was something original and spellbinding, something much more than a spectral thriller, a book heralding the arrival of a powerful new voice on the international literary scene.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Since then, Peter Hoeg has written four more novels: Borderliners, The Woman and the Ape, The Quiet Girl, and now, The Elephant Keepers’ Children. None of them like Smilla nor like each other, except for the obvious literary talent, narrative ingenuity, and metaphysical gamesmanship on display. Hoeg is a world-class writer, but one clearly determined to not repeat himself. His readers must follow him where his imagination takes him, meaning those who have lain in wait for Smilla Part II are doomed to disappointment. Too bad for them. Because Hoeg’s matchless ability to explore varied fictional realms also means that a renewed sense of excitement and discovery awaits the reader of each new book. This is especially true of his latest.
The Elephant Keepers’ Children is not about the kind of elephant one sees in zoos or circuses, although the characters who populate the novel would not be out of place in either venue. The elephant in this novel is a metaphorical one. According to Hoeg’s teenage narrator, also named Peter, this elephant is “that something inside us that is much bigger than ourselves and over which we have no control.” For Peter’s wayward parents—his father a clergyman, his mother an organist—it is the desire to know what God really is and to meet Him, “a yearning…that will never properly be fulfilled.” In trying to feed their elephants, the two of them go badly astray.
All the adults in this extraordinary novel have elephants residing inside them, “difficult to keep, requiring much care and attention.” They get that attention from fourteen-year-old Peter, his gifted sixteen-year-old sister, Tilte, his older big-hearted brother, Hans, and their dog, Basker III. This intrepid foursome, by dint of sheer pluck and a loving tolerance for individual eccentricity, save the day more than once and, in so doing, effect a reconciliation between all sorts of struggling elephant keepers and their inner selves, including those of their parents. In short, The Elephant Keepers’ Children is a love story and a comedy. And like so many great comedic love stories, it begins with a chase, goes crackers, veers toward the absurd, and ends in a dance. The kind of dance that makes one cheer through teary eyes.
In a short piece that appeared in the the Daily Beast this past June, Hoeg wrote, “The human heart comprises its own natural ethics.” Having lived in New York all these years, I’m not sure I buy that. But I do know this: in the fictional world of The Elephant Keepers’ Children, Hoeg’s axiom rings true. So true, in fact, that it almost makes me a believer in the salvific power of human love. For isn’t that what keeps both fictional and real worlds from spinning off their axes?
Paul Kozlowski is Associate Publisher of Other Press.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of the Other Press e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe.