An elephant’s faithful – one hundred per cent !”
Theodore Seuss Geisel, Horton Hatches the Egg, 1940
This is the epigraph at the start of my book club’s second choice – Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
It is hard to tell from the title but the book has an unusual plot about a travelling circus during the Great Depression. The main character and narrator is Jacob Jankowski, who is now “ninety. Or ninety three. One or the other” and looking back at his life while in a nursing home.
Although I haven’t reached that age yet, like all of us I know how it feels to get older, and one of my favourite things about the book is that it captures how I imagine it must feel to cope with a body that does not let you do the things it used to :
“When you’re five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It’s a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you ? Oh, I’m – you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty three, but you’re not. You’re thirty five. And then you’re bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but its decades before you admit it.”
“Age is a terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.”
The ageing is made more poignant by the fact that Jacob is looking back at his twenties when he joined a travelling circus, just as a circus sets up near his nursing home, and by alternating chapters between Jacob in his nineties and his younger self.
These are the sections I enjoyed less. The author has obviously carried out a tonne of research into the travelling circuses of that era but I feel the writing tries too hard to show you just how much research she has done – as a result the prose has a lot of detail, but can be a bit pedestrian, and doesn’t do justice to the story.
Nevertheless, I appreciate the originality of the idea and the plot and I don’t to give it away, but I love the ending.