The sound of the rifle shot rang through the air.
With a title not dissimilar to a Kipling classic and an endorsement on the cover from the one and only Michael Morpurgo, a certain preconception of this title as a ‘soft’ child/animal relationship story is set long before the cover is opened. Written by a journalist and a charity campaigner however, this novel is far from forgettable. Exploring both the relationship man has with nature as well as the haunting reality of child soldiers in Africa, The Child’s Elephant is told with careful precision and obvious passion – a tale of two stories that begins with the death of an elephant.
Bat lived a relatively mundane life in his close-knit African village until the day he discovered how poachers make their money. Walking away from the body of a de-tusked elephant, Bat soon learns that these horrors have consequences as he finds the newly-orphaned calf and brings her home. An amazing, intuitive relationship develops as elephant and boy grow up side by side. However, the rural idyll is soon threatened as the call of the wild begins to draw Meya home and the village is soon threatened by the brutality of guerrilla warfare.
Mixing the heart-warming love of man and beast with a perceptive portrayal of unimaginable inhumanity is a difficult coupling to manage, to say the least! Campbell-Johnston’s ability to write sensitively and subtly means that this balance is expertly managed. Her journalistic background clearly cements the story within the factual yet the very real horrors related to child soldiers is masked and there to be read into rather than deliberately shown – a technique that works very well for this target audience.
There is something very traditional about the feel of The Child’s Elephant. Divided into three parts (a beginning, middle and end), the story is told in a third person narrative and the ending is satisfactorily conclusive, if not a little implausible. It is an evocative piece of fiction; the descriptions of the African geography are particularly atmospheric as Campbell-Johnston personifies the power of nature in relation to the human world.
Due to the nature of the writing and subject matter, there is a clear ideology within this novel that makes the reading of it quite serious. I really enjoyed reading about Bat, Muka and Meya and felt every step of their journey as keenly as if I were alongside them but at times the message, particularly in relation to the elephants, was delivered with a bit too much of a heavy hand but this is merely a little niggle in an otherwise affecting and effective novel.