Funny, wry novel packs serious emotional truths

  • Article by: ELLEN AKINS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 23, 2012 - 1:52 PM

BOOK REVIEW: Peter Hoeg's new novel - a madcap, imaginative, downright weird story about three siblings and their highly unusual parents - is nothing at all like his best-selling "Smilla's Sense of Snow."

Peter Hoeg's "The Elephant Keeper's Children"

What a very weird book this is, although wonderful in its way. Fans of Peter Hoeg's 1992 bestseller, "Smilla's Sense of Snow," should know that this novel, "The Elephant Keepers' Children" (Other Press, 391 pages, $27.95), is quite different -- except in the way it re-creates Denmark as a place that is at once itself and something else altogether.

And that place is very much a projection of the imagination, in which deeply serious emotional truths and grave ideas are enacted and explored through a preposterous plot by characters cartoonish, fabulous and endearing. And funny -- Peter, the 14-year-old narrator, is wry beyond his years, drawing upon an improbably prodigious knowledge of the world to make observations that are often as hilarious as they are apt.

The story? Hmmm. Peter's eccentric and devout parents -- a vicar and a craftswoman who builds everything from moving bookcases to electronic voice recognition systems -- have disappeared, not for the first time, raising the suspicions of their children (Peter, his 16-year-old sister Tilte, a moral and intellectual force, and their older brother Hans, a big, bold fairy-tale hero of sorts) and the authorities, a bizarre cast of characters from school, government and church, with names like Anaflabia Borderrud, Thorkild Thorlacius and Alexander Flounderblood.

Mother and Father, it seems, have been using their extracurricular skills to augment their spiritual authority and their church's attendance. And now they're up to something even more devious (and criminal) than their previous forms of fraud.

Then there's the IT consultant, Leonara Ticklepalate, who's a high-ranking Buddhist nun and a proponent of something called sexual-cultural coaching. The corpse of Maria from Maribo, who ran the ice cream kiosk at the harbor, now is transported here and there to mislead and confuse Peter and Tilte's pursuers as they, the children, try to unravel their parents' plot.

Madcap? Yes. There are chases and explosions and countless cases of mistaken identity. There are costume changes and shifts of personnel worthy of the Marx brothers. And threaded through it all, there's romance as sweet and inevitable (and, yes, as goofy) as in any Shakespearean comedy. But aside from recovering and reclaiming his parents and foiling a nefarious scheme centering on the Grand Synod, Peter is intent upon finding the door out of the prison -- or, as he says, "the room that is oneself." Along the way, he comes to recognize what he calls "elephant keepers," those people who, like his parents, "have something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control." And it is in the recognition -- for Peter, for the book, for its reader -- that the door opens, and everything, even this story, is possible.

Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.

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