From the very start the story drew me in and refused to let me out again. It’s a story of love, loss and elephants. I don’t know if the publisher ever used that tag line but perhaps they should have.
The love is a mother’s lover for her daughter and the child’s unconditional love for her mother. The loss is when the two are separated after the tragic death of a member of staff at a New England elephant sanctuary. Not only is the caregiver (never “keeper”) killed but Jenna and her mother Alice are ripped apart from each other.
The elephants, well they help to tell the story as well. We see love, loss and grief through the research of Alice, the mother of the piece and if you have ever thought that elephants were just dumb animals I can assure you that this book will change your mind. Jodi Picoult shows us the complexity of elephant society, especially in relation to how the females of the species care for themselves, their offspring and each other. Throughout the book there is a very clear message: elephants would be far, far better off if we humans kept a very great distance between us and them.
The story is told from four different perspectives. The first is from Alice, a researcher into elephant behaviour. She tells us most of the back story; starting with her studies in Botswana and continuing all the way to the events of the night of the tragedy.
The second perspective is from Jenna, her daughter, who loses her mother when she is three years old and as a teenager sets out to try to find her again. Jenna is a determined person and will not give up her search, regardless of the emotional cost.
The third perspective is from Serenity, a washed up celebrity psychic who is drawn to Jenna through feelings of guilt over a failure in her powers at the height of her fame.
The final perspective is that of Virgil, a drunken private investigator and former cop. He was called to the scene of the tragedy and was persuaded by his soon-to-retire partner to write the whole incident off as a tragic accident. Virgil’s guilt at having made so many mistakes in doing that is what motivates him to help Jenna.
The story is well paced. When Alice speaks the story slows down so that we can understand the implications of what she tells us, both in relation to the behaviour she observes in the elephants and also in relation to what is happening in her own life. When Jenna, Serenity or Virgil take up the story the pace picks up as the three take up the search for the missing Alice. All the time we are teased by two questions: is Alice dead or is she alive? If she is alive was she a victim or a murderer?
The language Jodi uses is beautiful and she can drop a phrase into an otherwise nondescript sentence and make you gasp at its depth of meaning. Her descriptions of elephant society make me love those animals while her emotional engagement with the two main characters, Alice and Jenna, made me care about them as much as they cared about each other.
You can guess from the inclusion of the character Serenity that there is a paranormal dimension to this story. As a firm non-believer in the paranormal this bothered me at first but as the book progressed I found myself suspending my disbelief and accepting Serenity and her former powers. I’m not a convert to the paranormal, but within the context of this book it worked for me.
All the characters are well drawn and also flawed in their nature. Does Alice love the elephants more than her husband or her daughter? Is Jenna just a spoilt brat who won’t take no for an answer? Does Serenity have real powers or is she just a swamp witch, a term she uses to describe fake psychics? And as for Virgil, can he stay sober long enough to be of help to Jenna and, if he does, what if the answers he finds point to Alice being a murderer?
As a reader I try to out-think authors and work out how a story will end, which is what I tried to do with this book. If you try to do this then I promise you that if you are successful then you must be some kind of genius, or maybe you have psychic powers of your own, because the ending is so unexpected in its audacity and suddenness that it made me catch my breath.
Some authors cheat to bring about a surprise ending. They bring in characters that haven’t been mentioned throughout the story or they suddenly reveal clues that the reader wasn't privy to before, but not Jodi Picoult.
If you will forgive me waxing lyrical for a moment, Jodi Picoult sends out clues like a child blowing bubbles. They float tantalisingly in front of you, then when you reach out to touch them they’re gone. But they are there long enough for you to grasp their significance and if you miss them or discount their significance you will end up saying “so that was why….”
I dare not give away the ending to this book; I’d end up with a legion of Jodi Picoult fans erecting a gallows on my front lawn with me as its sole user (actually I'm sure that Jodi Picoult fans are much too nice for that, but they would no doubt do a lot of tut-tutting). If you are the sort of person who skips to the end of a book to see what happens, please don’t do that with this book. Let the story unfold naturally and you will enjoy it all the more.
There are a couple of anomalies that bothered me a little, but as I can’t describe them without giving away some critical plot points I had better leave them alone. In themselves they don’t make any difference to the outcome of the story.
In case you hadn’t twigged yet, Jodi Picoult has a new fan and I don’t think I will ever look at elephants in the same way again, and I very much hope that you won’t, either. If you read only one book this year, make it this one.
Just in case there are any film producers who read this blog (you never know), I think this book would make an excellent movie.
And now for a little bit of news of my own, I've had another Five Star review for my own novel The Girl I Left Behind Me. To find out more click on the "Books" tab at the top of the page.
In next week's blog, why I've decided to become a comedian. No, don't laugh.