Reviews of The Elephant Keeper

'Intensely exceptional novel.' (Boston Globe)

'an extended meditation on human needs and how our choices shape a better or lesser existence....[A] poignant, heartfelt novel.' (St. Louis Post Dispatch)

'an unforgettable picture of an elephant/human relationship so close that, as the elephant learns to think like a human, she teaches her human to think like an elephant. This is one of the best books of the year.' (BookPage)

'Endearing...a rich meditation on the Enlightenment. Like the elephant at its centre, Nicholson's book is gentle, profound and sweet-natured.' (The Observer)

'Bighearted and warm, with a slow-moving kind of grace, the book is very much like the two elephants that inhabit the world of the novel. Elegant and beautiful, the writing is precise and well-paced. The Elephant Keeper is a book that will stay with you long after you have read the last page.' (Raleigh News & Observer)

'It isn't often that amid all the indifferent fiction - historical novels especially - I'm offered for review every week, I come upon an absolute gem. Nicholson's story, set in 1773, about a 15-year-old boy from Somerset employed to take care of a pair of elephants bought by a wealthy Bristol merchant with a vague plan of breeding from them for the lucrative ivory market, defies category. Technically, I suppose, it is a historical novel, but though we're aware that the events could only have taken place in the late 18th century when most people had never heard of, let alone seen, an elephant, it is the extraordinary relationship between the keeper Tom Page and his charges Timothy and Jenny that had me at times close to tears. Sentimental stuff about mistreated animals, the whole Black Beauty genre, leaves me cold. But Tom's feelings both for Lizzie, the girl he leaves to follow Jenny to her new owner in Sussex, and (here's the twist) for Jenny herself are definitely not sentimental. They are sexual. It sounds kinky, but as this strange, yet always completely believable, story unfolds you feel such sympathy for Tom and his varying fortunes, your affection for him never wavers. Until the day on Bristol docks that he encounters Jenny being unloaded along with half a dozen other dead or dying exotic animals - baboon, leopard, zebra - in the crates they have been kept in throughout their three-month voyage from India, he was just the same as the rest of Mr Harrington's stable boys. Thanks to his father the head groom, he knew more about horses than most, but that was all. But his new duties in the elephant house isolate him from the other staff on the estate. So he bonds with the elephants instead, teaching them to obey simple orders, kneeling, shaking hands with their trunks, and as the relationship blossoms so does his stature and confidence. Apocryphal anecdotes abound. A friend of Mr Harrington's who once worked in India offers mixed advice about pachyderm welfare, but is better at regaling audiences with graphic eye-witness accounts of, say, how elephants were often used by Maharajas as their official executioners. The condemned man, tied and blindfolded, would first be lashed by its trunk then crushed by one of its feet and finally impaled through the neck with a tusk. How much of this delightful but often darkly disturbing book is based on historical records I don't know, and frankly it doesn't matter. The result is a joy.' (Sue Arnold, The Guardian, 17th April 2010)

'A sensitive boy suddenly becomes groom to Timothy and Jenny, the first pair of young elephants brought into England in the 1700s. This informative, engaging and moving book has clear insight into the impact of poverty, alienation and isolation that is as relevant today as it was then.' (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review)

'Christopher Nicholson traces the arc of Tom and Jenny's surprising journey with delicate empathy. He confronts sex, violence and power, but he does not shy away from less dramatic themes, such as gentleness and companionship, which help to make The Elephant Keeper such a rewarding book.' (Times Literary Supplement)

The Elephant Keeper is the best book I've read in the past twenty years or so.' (Nikki Giovanni, poet)

Link Read the first chapter
Link Read Christopher Nicholson on the writing of The Elephant Keeper
Link Read Christopher Nicholson's endpiece on the early history of elephants, with pictures of historic elephants

Listen to a 2009 interview with Christopher Nicholson about The Elephant Keeper on: