Faux-picaresque debut novel about a boy and his elephant.
In 1766, Tom, a stable boy, is put in charge of two elephants purchased by the squire of an English country estate. Tom quickly learns to communicate with and train these intelligent animals without resorting to cruelty. The meticulously detailed, occasionally tedious first third of the text describes this process, as well as such watershed events in Tom’s life as the death of his father and a tryst with his sweetheart, housemaid Lizzy. Male elephant Timothy’s hormones rage out of control, and he is sold to an earl. Jenny, the female elephant, becomes Tom’s partner in interior monologue as Tom imagines she is conversing with him. When eccentric aristocrat Lord Bidborough purchases Jenny, Tom is admitted to the fantastic park, complete with obelisk, manmade waterfall and Hermit-for-hire, which this gouty noble polymath has created on his vast fiefdom. Lord Bidborough, an animal lover, respects Tom and Jenny and even asks Tom to pen “the History of the Elephant,” whence the pretext for the novel. This idyll is shattered when Mr. Singleton, Bidborough’s son and heir, returns from his dissipated life abroad. An arrogant, nasty roué, Singleton torments Jenny, rapes a housemaid and is about to violate a young village girl when Tom and Jenny intervene. Singleton lashes out at Tom, breaking his nose and permanently disfiguring him; Jenny exacts revenge. Singleton’s murderer is never found, but shortly after the incident, Lord Bidborough, rendered mute and incapacitated by a stroke, dies, and Tom and Jenny are on the road again. Twenty years later, Tom is now Jenny’s keeper at a London “Menagery”/ amusement arcade, where Jenny is being passed off as more than 100 years old by the flimflam zookeeper. From there, Nicholson experiments with several possible resolutions, only to opt for an uplifting but inconclusive ending.
The 18th-century diction is convincing, but too much elephant lore, though engrossing in its own right, slows the pace.