The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg (Harvill Secker $37.99)

Three precocious adolescents on a Danish island slap in the middle of the Kattegat Strait. A pastor father obsessed with organising a Grand Synod. A mother who helps stabilise cruise liners. So starts this new novel from (he must get sick of people noting it) the author of Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow.

Peter, the 14-year-old narrator, plus elder brother Hans, the handsome horse-tickler, and sister Tilte, the obsessive reader of other people's diaries, realise their parents have vanished. Ostensibly, Mum and Dad are on holiday in the Canaries. Actually, they never left Denmark.

The mystery expands. Why have Peter's parents been communicating with others via encrypted documents? Why do those communications involve guns, explosives and currency? Why has an hour been deleted from their computer? Why does Dad speak in cod-scriptural cadences?


An avalanche of events and absurdities tears along. A singing vision in green is saved. Two cops bill and coo. Booming Bishop Borderrud complicates matters. There's an escape in a laundry basket, a sea-voyage with a corpse to Copenhagen, a dog that resolves theological issues with a hairdryer.

Pallas Athene wears high red heels and drives a Jag. Academic and ecclesiastical luminaries fall off a ladder. In case you feel short-changed, there's also the odd secret passage.

A tumultuous cast rush in and out. There's Alex Flounderblood, the inimical educational organiser; Buddhist nun Lenora Ticklepalate, who stays solvent by talking dirty on the phone; a bisexual junkie aristocrat and owner of the local detox unit; an ex-school principal and Nordic worshipper. There's also Professor Claptrap and Sinbad Al-Blabblab. Subtle, this ain't - though I'll detour to say it seems superbly translated by Martin Aitken.

Everything is a performance: exuberant, gymnastic, flamboyant. You may find it irresistible. You may find it irritating. There are times when cleverness threatens to smother content, when you can't see the plot for the playfulness.

The three young people are so resourceful, so indomitable, you alternate between applauding them and wanting to send them to their rooms. Peter quotes the sayings of Buddha and other mystics. He also goes in for a lot of football analogies.

The symbolic elephants of the title are part of a motif of integrity and imprisonment which may or may not fit convincingly into the anarchy of the narrative.

But there's no doubting Hoeg's exuberance and inventiveness. If the Danish national grid ever goes down, he'll have more than enough energy to power it up again.