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The Elephant Keepers' Children: A Novel by the Author of Smilla's Sense of Snow

The Elephant Keepers' Children: A Novel by the Author of Smilla's Sense of Snow

by Peter Hoeg
The Elephant Keepers' Children: A Novel by the Author of Smilla's Sense of Snow

The Elephant Keepers' Children: A Novel by the Author of Smilla's Sense of Snow

by Peter Hoeg


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From the author of Smilla's Sense of Snow, an epic novel about faith and the magic of everyday life.

Told from the precocious perspective of fourteen-year-old Peter, The Elephant Keepers' Children is about three siblings and how they deal with life alongside their eccentric parents. Peter's father is a vicar, his mother is an artisan, and both are equally and profoundly devout. The family lives on the (fictional) island of Finø, where people of all religious faiths coexist peacefully. Yet, nothing is at it seems. 
   When Peter's parents suddenly go missing, Peter and his siblings fear the worst—has their parents' relentless quest to boost church attendance finally put them in danger? Told with poignancy and humor, The Elephant Keepers' Children is a fascinating exploration of fundamentalism versus spiritual freedom, the vicissitudes of romantic and familial love, and the triumph of the human spirit.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590516355
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 05/21/2013
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Peter Høeg was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. Before becoming a writer, he worked variously as a sailor, ballet dancer, and actor. He published his first novel, A History of Danish Dreams (1988), to positive reviews. However, it was Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1992), a million-copy best seller, that earned Høeg immediate and international literary celebrity. His books have been published in more than thirty countries.

Martin Aitken holds a PhD in linguistics and gave up university tenure to translate literature. Novels in his translation have been published on both sides of the Atlantic, and his translations of Danish short stories and poetry have appeared in The Literary Review, AGNI, Boston Review, and A Public Space, among other publications. He lives in rural Denmark.

Read an Excerpt

It’s not like we have never seen my father cry before. When you’re married to someone like my mother, who very often forgets everything around her, including her husband and her children and her dog, because she has become obsessed by the idea of making her own mechanical wristwatch and works twenty-four hours in one stretch to center the axles of the wheels while we children and our father go hungry—when you’re married to a woman like that you will have need to weep on the shoulders of close friends at least once a fortnight, which Father almost certainly has done in the company of Bent Piglet or John the Savior.
   But he has never done it at home. On such occasions as we have seen Father weep, it has always been in church and on account of him saying something especially beautiful that makes him cry because he is moved and grateful for the Lord having provided Finø with such a magnificent pastor as himself. Or else he cries at a funeral in sympathy with the bereaved, and one must reluctantly admit that Father’s sympathy is almost as great as his satisfaction at putting it on display.
   Though his complacency and sympathy both may be great, they have never been so great as what we now witness in the kitchen of our rectory home. What we see is something that has always been contained inside our father, but which only now is released, and to begin with we have no words for it. But Father leaves the kitchen and Mother goes after him, and Tilte and Hans and Basker and I remain behind and look at each other. We sit for a moment in silence, and then Tilte suddenly says: “They’re elephant keepers. That’s Mother’s and Father’s problem. They’re elephant keepers without knowing.”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A picaresque tale that probes society’s little hypocrisies while offering an original array of characters. At first glance, an utterly fun, absorbing read.” —Library Journal

"Told with poignancy and humor, The Elephant Keepers' Children is a fascinating exploration of fundamentalism versus spiritual freedom, the vicissitudes of romantic and familial love, and the triumph of the human spirit" —Examiner

"It succeeds in being extremely funny while also wrestling with deeper philosophical questions about the role of religion in society and individual choice." —Huffington Post

"This book manages to be both highly entertaining and seriously thought provoking. I must also mention the flawless translation, which allows us to step into the streets of Copenhagen and to enjoy Hoeg’s play with words. Peter regales us with tales of his hilarious misdeeds on one page and delves into the true nature of spirituality on the next. I closed this book feeling wiser." —Three Percent

"A thriller of sorts this is, but it’s more humorous than frightening, more of a caper than a mystery, and more of a coming-of-age story than a suspense yarn...Under the madcap adventure story Hoeg poses serious issues about neglected children, venal church officials, and the paths to intellectual and spiritual freedom." —Publishers Weekly

"Part comic teenage adventure story, part intellectual debate, the best-selling Danish author's sixth novel is a shaggy-dog story with a unique vision...Høeg has an endless menu of oddities to stir into his story; whether thriller, fantasy or disuisition on spiritual belief, love and parenting does successfully invent an inexhaustible landscape all its own" —Kirkus

"This is the novel of the winter to restore your faith in the magic of human experience." —Washington Independent Review of Books

"The lunacy of a spiritually addicted culture motors this soberhearted screwball comedy from the author of Smilla’s Sense of Snow." —International Herald Tribune

"Peter Høeg displays a glorious facility for the absurd as well as the picaresque, and the hilarity of Peter Finø's narrative makes this a delightful novel..." —The Guardian

"Bizarre, philosophical (in an Eastern spirituality way), magically real, with more than enough action and twists, this novel is delivered in a unique voice." —Psychology Today

"As soon as I opened to page one, and met fourteen-year-old Peter, I was hooked...It's really a crime thriller, yet filled with mystical characters and a surprising amount of laughs." —Kick Ass Book Reviews

Reading Group Guide

1. Why do you think Høeg chose to have a child narrate this story? In Peter’s perceptions and descriptions, how are the adults different from him and the rest of the children?

2. The title of the book is taken from this Indian proverb: “In case you wish to befriend an elephant keeper, make certain to have room for the elephant.” Discuss the meaning of the proverb and how it relates to the novel’s characters. Do you think the adults in the book are each elephant keepers in his or her own way?

3. In what ways does the novel blur the boundaries between the real and the imagined? What do you think Høeg is trying to say about the nature of reality—and our beliefs about it—through these distortions of reality and seemingly fantastical episodes and characters?

4. Høeg presents a narrative full of anecdotes and diversions. What sort of experience does this create for the reader? Are these really distractions from the plot, or do they build the larger framework of the narrative? If the latter, what does Høeg wish the reader to gain from them?

5. On Finø, many religions co-exist in peace together. Given that the population is capable of overcoming such obstacles as prejudice and religious intolerance, what keeps the island from being a perfect utopia?

6. Peter tells us, “with the island being so small, a lot of people need to be two or three things at once” (page 14). Which characters possess this multifaceted quality, literally and/or psychologically? How do these dynamics influence their standing in Finø?

7. Sex, religion, and freedom are all closely entwined throughout the novel. How are sex and religion blended or distinguished from one another to create freedom, false-freedom, or imprisonment for the characters?

8. Early in the novel, it is revealed that you can enter “the door” at moments of extreme happiness or despair and that love and “the door” are connected. In light of these facts, and the fates of the characters, think about what keeps a person from being free. Why is Tilte the one to find the door?

9. Describe what it means to be an elephant keeper. Can an elephant keeper walk through “the door”?

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