Title: The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter
Author: Julia Drosten
Genre: Historical Fiction
First published: August 8th 2016
Finished reading: March 26th 2018
(Originally written in German: ‘Die Elefantenhüterin’)
“Sometimes it’s very hard not to follow the path of revenge.”
*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and AmazonCrossing in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***
I have a weak spot for historical fiction, especially if they are set in an era or country I’m not all that familiar with. I was instantly intrigued when I first read about The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter, with its promises of a country/culture I don’t know much about as well as the era the story takes place. The 19th century history of Ceylon (now called Scri Lanka) is a fascinating background for this story and the descriptions of both the country itself and the customs and culture are lavishly and thoroughly described. It is really easy to imagine how Ceylon would have looked like from the descriptions alone! And it also shows the background for this story was very well researched and put together. Sadly, somehow I didn’t manage to get a proper feel for The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter though. While I love thorough descriptions, especially of places that are foreign to me, I started to wonder about the balance of those descriptions and the actual plot. It is true that the descriptions help set the right atmosphere and foreign setting/era, but they also slowed down the pace considerably. And not just the pace, because I also felt the transition from background descriptions to the more active parts was quite haltered and as a consequence the story didn’t really flow. I can’t put my finger on the why exactly, but I think my mixed feelings had a lot to do with the general tone and writing style as well. Both seemed distant and not natural, and the second especially stood out in the dialogues. And in general, even though they story describes some pretty barbaric events, it doesn’t seem to be able to provoke true emotions due to this feeling of distance. The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter has a lot of potential and the main characters have an interesting story, but sadly I wasn’t able to enjoy this story better. I’m still wondering if part of my problem with the tone and writing style could have been due to the fact this novel is a translation though, and some of its original charm might have been lost.
In the royal city of Kandy, the king’s elephant keeper’s wife gives birth to a daughter the same day the king’s favorite elephant gives birth to her young. The couple was desperate for a boy to ensure the line of succession, and the mother hides her daughter’s gender by raising her as a boy. Phera and her elephant Siddhi become close friends and spends most of her time with the animal. Phera realizes she is not like other boys, but her parents force her to keep her true gender a secret… Until the British colonists invade Ceylon and they have to flee the capital.
I really wanted to like this one and I still think the plot itself has a lot of potential. The worldbuilding and descriptions of the era and setting are thorough and it shows the background of The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter was very well researched. Sadly, I’m still on the fence about this one, as I didn’t manage to enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Part of the problem was the tone and writing style as well as the fact the story didn’t really flow… Which made it hard to properly connect to the story. The setting is fascinating though as well as the time period the story is set in with its consequences of the British invasion.