Where has this Peter Hoeg been all of my life?
Like many other readers here, I discovered Hoeg after devouring his “Smilla’s Sense of Snow’’ in the early 1990s, caught up in an early hint of the storm of ravenousness, which would envelop Stieg Larsson’s Girl series, as if the idea that Scandinavians could write thrillers was somehow brand new. (When in fact, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö had been producing them since the 1960s.)
“Smilla’’ whet appetites. Hoeg’s “The History of Danish Dreams’’ and “The Woman and the Ape,’’ along with their successors, were steps into a more surreal register, OK for magical realism fans but not as broadly successful as “Smilla.’’
Then along comes this book, set on the fictional Scandinavian island of Fino, “slap in the middle of the Sea of Opportunity,” narrated by Peter, a remarkably outspoken and precocious 14-year-old, whose frank, opinionated tone and cultural references are perpetually surprising and entertaining.
He has a lot to emote about: His parents, even by the most forgiving standards, are crackpots who tend to vanish without warning. His father is a vicar, but this doesn’t really redeem him much, and his mother is something of a computer expert. One of their disappearances, in fact, serves as the central mystery of the book. Shortly after it occurs, Peter and his siblings go in search of their errant parents and are confronted by a series of bizarre events, starting out in a poorly managed rehab center and leading to points beyond.
But make no mistake. Where “Smilla’’ was a chilling thriller, “The Elephant Keepers’ Children’’ is stranger, an oddball caper blended with a coming-of-age story.
Hoeg has demonstrated command of the child’s point of view before, memorably in “Borderliners,’’ but the loneliness of the titular children, along with their feeling of having been deserted, makes their adventures all the more gripping and, periodically, quietly terrifying.
Among the delights of this book are the array of characters. First there is Peter’s family, which sidesteps easy categorization. While this group does not flaunt wealth, they have servants; they live comfortably; and the disappearances by the parents — who don’t seem above shady dealings — often have to do with money.
The old-money Count Rickardt Three Lions, originally a heroin addict and kleptomaniac, meets the children by way of theft (for drugs), though he will later become an addiction therapist and a member of the board of directors at the Big Hill rehabilitation center, where the children seek refuge after their parents’ disappearance.
And then there’s Pallas Athene, a prostitute who teaches both Peter and readers about the pleasure and the hardship of the profession. These figures, along with others, provide a picture of a vast and mixed but strangely unified society.
Martin Aitken’s translation has done something remarkable in conveying a teenage boy’s stiffness and natural awkwardness with great fluidity, so that not only are his occasional oversimplifications and bursts of pomposity, combined with expressions of boyish curiosity, believable, they are also a pleasure to read. Peter’s slow recognition that he must fend for himself in the world, ultimately, is articulated in open-hearted tones, as is his frustration with his sister and his ongoing love for an elusive girl named Conny.
At times, Hoeg allows himself to rattle on a bit too long, in a vaguely digressive manner, so much so that the plot is slightly obscured, but the narrative and its load-bearers, in this case Peter and his family, are largely irresistible.