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Book Review: The Elephant keeper’s daughter by Julia Drosten

A few days on from finishing this book, I have mixed feelings about it……

Here’s the premise, in 1803, Phera, is born to the elephant keeper of the independent mountainous Sinhalese Kingdom of Kanda. She’s the third daughter, without a son the elephant keeper doesn’t have an heir, so Phera is raised as a boy and for 12 years trains to be an elephant keeper.

She’s only able to live as a girl when British colonialists invade, and her family are forced to flee. 

This is a historical novel with a fictional story at the heart of it. It details the moment when Kanda fell, and the entire island of Ceylon/Sri Lanka was taken over by the British. I don’t know a whole lot about this chapter in history, I’m intrigued by it.

I like the idea that’s central to the plot, that having a male heir was so important to Phera’s parents they lied about the identity of their child. I like the idea of how she’d need to adapt to living as a woman after initially being raised as a boy. Despite wanting to be seen as a girl she struggles with the restraints placed on her, she’s told she can’t climb trees and run wild anymore, she does however stand firm in wanting to keep working with her elephant Siddhi and being trained to fight – much to the despair of her mum and sisters.

We get an idea of how the British treated the Sinhalese, how colonialists destroyed villages and forced Christian values on people, instead of respecting the Buddhist culture. The scenes describing how her family’s rebellion (based on the Uva rebellion) is crushed are brutal and an uncomfortable read, it needed to be. 

Here’s where I struggle with this book… I just don’t feel it gave me enough historical context to have an understanding of what happened. We’re given more detail in the preface, but I feel it would have been better to have this incorporated into the main body of the story.

Phera’s dual life and the bloody history of Sri Lanka would have been enough to tell a fascinating story, it didn’t need a love story between Phera and British doctor thrown in, they literally fell in love within a couple of pages after two meetings.  

I didn’t hate this book, I liked the plot, themes and backstory, but it felt a little rushed and that’s a real shame. This book could have been much longer and could have really delved into Sri Lanka’s history and explored what happened during colonialism. I wish it had, that’s what I’d liked to have learned more about.

I loved Phera’s strength and courage, I liked the struggle she faced to marry the two sides of her personality but again it was glossed over; everyone accepts she’s suddenly a girl fairly easily despite the fact only her parents knew the truth all along. I wanted her to triumph, she’s a likeable passionate character, the book just didn’t dig beneath the surface enough.

What this book did do though was encourage me to look further into  Sri Lanka’s history, it’s somewhere that’s been on my destination list for a long time, now seems as good a time as any to find out more. 

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

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