On Historical Novels

Deceptively simple, and good

By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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“I was born, the older of two children, in the village of Thornhill, Somersetshire, in the year of our Lord 1753.’’ There is comfort and charm in that introductory sentence. Relax, it seems to say, I am a plain fellow and my story is one that you will easily understand. The wary reader may fear that the ensuing narrative will turn out to be either arch or precious, too clever or too sweet for its own good. But “The Elephant Keeper’’ by Christopher Nicholson is neither; it is simply good and deceptively simple.

Tom Page is the plain-spoken narrator who begins his working life as a stable boy to Mr. John Harrington, sugar merchant of Bristol, and who later finds his vocation as the elephant keeper to Lord Bidborough of Sussex. In 1773, Tom’s master, in the cause of science, instructs Tom to write a full description of the elephant in his care. The elephant’s story, as related by Tom, is of course his own story. In Nicholson’s hands, however, it is also a lively portrait of 18th-century manners and ideas. Contemporary thoughts on slavery and freedom, reason and empathy, poverty and privilege are subtly introduced and made flesh in the enormous “half-reasoning Animal’’ that falls into Tom’s care and that becomes his life.

Tom first sees the elephant that he will come to love on the Bristol docks where she and her brother are unloaded along with a leopard, a zebra and a baboon, each barely alive after 91 days at sea in sealed crates. The horrific scene, described with clarity and restraint, suggests similar tableaux of enslaved humans, but Nicholson does not make that point. He allows this and other associations to occur to the reader as he guides Tom and the elephant now called Jenny through trials and adventures that are obviously inspired by the novels of Hardy and Dickens. With charming freshness and not a whiff of pastiche, Nicholson depicts the rapacious aristocrat and the ruined maiden, hopeless love and squalid debauchery alongside luminous descriptions of nature: Tom remarks, for example, on “the blind river of a nightingale’s song, bubbling and sobbing in the darkness’’ and the fact that badgers line their dens with bluebells.

Sold to kindly Lord Bidborough and soon separated from her brother but not from Tom - never from Tom - Jenny gradually begins to communicate with her keeper not only by obeying his signals to kneel, lie, and lifting riders aboard her, but also through unspoken thoughts. This sounds silly or cute, but Nicholson’s light touch and sly humor ensures that this animal-human dialogue is entirely natural and intensely moving. “I am a man,’’ Tom tells Jenny after a moment of cowardice has left him ashamed, “I am a human being. She gazes at me, expressionless, a pale stalk hanging from the tip of her trunk - What is a human being?’’ This exceptional novel makes that a very good question.

Inspector Ghote of the Bombay Police is, like Tom Page, a simple man who sets out to tell a simple story, but in H.R.F. Keating’s new novel “Inspector Ghote’s First Case,’’ that story is one of crime and detection in 1960s India. There are no elephants and few surprises in this mystery of a pregnant English woman who has apparently committed suicide and of her loathsome husband whose “Primrose Cottage’’ outside Bombay enshrines a middle-class version of the defunct Raj. Ghote, with his comical musings, his adoration of Shakespeare and his Hamlet-like ditherings, has appeared in two previous Keating novels. “Inspector Ghote’s First Case’’ is, therefore, a prequel, a word that the occasionally pompous Ghote, to his credit, would not tolerate.

Detection of a racier, more dangerous kind fuels Dan Fesperman’s smoothly accelerating thriller “The Arms Maker of Berlin.’’ Moving between the present-day USA and 1940s Germany, Fesperman’s novel has an American historian as its unlikely hero and a refreshingly cynical tone. “Let’s face it, the swastika still sells,’’ an aging academic tells his protégé. “Always has, always will. Nobody did it quite like those bastards, and everyone still wants to know why.’’

When the protégé, Nat Turnbull, is enlisted by the FBI to examine Nazi-era files that his mentor is accused of having stolen, Turnbull’s study of German resistance during World War II comes shockingly to life. Within a few days, suspicious gaps in the files (and a mysterious German researcher) lure Turnbull to Germany and Switzerland even as the reader is shuttled back to Berlin in 1941 where this labyrinthine story of spying and betrayal begins. Fesperman is a skillful, unpretentious writer who deftly incorporates his extensive knowledge of the period into a plot that rarely flags or strains credulity. Historical characters appear infrequently - ordinary lives hold our interest here - but even a character as legendary as the wartime CIA chief Alan Dulles or as clichéd as an interrogating Gestapo officer are portrayed with their humanness if not their humanity intact. The many manifestations of the German resistance are also well depicted: “we droned on like chemistry professors,’’ the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the resistance leader, tells a young acolyte, “while the little man with the mustache played the pantomime fool and lured away most of our flock.’’

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at

By Christopher Nicholson
William Morrow, 304 pp., $24.99

By H.R.F. Keating
Minotaur, 288 pp., $24.99

By Dan Fesperman
Knopf, 384 pp., $25.95

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