04 May 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Algonquin Books, 2006
First, a caveat. I am not amongst the legions who picked up this book because of the recent movie adaptation starring Robert Pattinson! It has actually been on or near the top of the Amazon Kindle bestselling list for ages. I passed it over for a while because I am generally not a fan of circuses, and I particularly do not like circuses with live animals. But I did buy it eventually because reviews promised it would be a great summer read.

And so it was. Despite the fact that my nervousness concerning animals proved to be entirely justified, I really enjoyed reading this book.

It is set in depression-era USA.  Jacob Jankowski, a young vet student about to sit for his final college exams at Cornell University, learns that both his parents have died in a car accident.  To make matters worse, he also finds out that they had mortgaged the family home to pay for his education, and he does not now have a cent to his name. Awash with grief and bewilderment, he skips his final exam and inexplicably finds himself on board a circus train, and subsequently hired to care for the circus animals. Jacob is thrown into the gritty whirlwind that is the circus - he falls in love with Marlena, the young and beautiful wife of the circus' cruel, crazy equestrian director. Things do come to a head, but no spoilers here.

I like how Gruen transports us to another era - one that we might be familiar with because it's often talked about, but certainly not from the perspective of what a moving circus was like back then. She manages to give the reader a good feel of the history without being too encyclopedic.  My overwhelming thought, reading Gruen's candid description of the cruelty and sometimes brutality shown towards people and animals alike: no wonder there aren't any more of them around, and a good thing too.

I also like Gruen's juxtaposition between young and old Jacob Jankowski - a scary reminder that time marches unflinchingly on, and no matter how colourful or interesting life is, we are all ultimately destined to live out the last of our years an incapacitated fraction of our former selves. The ending of the novel is a bit too convenient, but perhaps the message is this - no matter how old you are, it is never too late to seize what remains of your life and max it out before you go.

What this book lacks in depth, it more than makes up for with a very, very good story. If you're on holiday, I urge you to pick it up.


As promised in my previous post - it's time to get cracking on the 2010 booker prize shortlist. A bit late, I know, but The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson is already downloaded. I have been preoccupied over the last few days with The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. I agree with my aunt Hwee - it's absolutely unputdownable.

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