In a country house in England a precocious teenage exile from revolutionary Russia sets down his adventures on paper, beginning with his first ball in St Petersburg and how he frees a huge African elephant from a cruel circus. But a hundred years later an American academic feels the boy may have invented the elephant as the only kind and uplifting being in dark times.
‘What Elephant provides to the reader is a gloriously absorbing story about storytelling, as rich in suspense and vitality as it is in incidents and images that dare you to disbelieve them. An ice-bound Russian lake is filled with the frozen bodies of neatly dressed office girls. A zeppelin appears above Wentworth Woodhouse, equipped with a harnessed undercarriage that can carry a full-grown Indian elephant away from imminent danger.’ —Miranda Seymour, Financial Times
‘At the centre of Pickering’s meticulously researched narrative is the gigantic female elephant, a metaphor for lost innocence and uncorrupted simplicity the fast-industrialising capitalist world feels apprehensive of. Alexei’s dream about ‘the river of dark fire’ is actually an echo of Schopenhauer’s account of ‘the anarchic, artistic Wille, the raw power behind creation’. The elephant, as Natasha fails to convince the émigrés, ‘is a counter to the inhumanity of our digital age’’ —Bhaskar Roy, Outlook Magazine
‘There's no doubt that Pickering's experiences in Afghanistan have helped immeasurably when describing the detail of Malone and Fatima's journey. But it has also given him an insight to the country's people. His admiration and sympathy for an embattled but proud people is clear.’ —The Herald
‘There’s lots of violence, and factional fighting, and confusion, and a long trek through the mountains. The theme of The Wizard of Oz is never very far away, either. And when I said that the veil lifts about halfway through, that’s not the only time it lifts. The good guys are just as bad as the bad guys, Pickering seems to be telling us. But the bad guys know stuff the good guys will never know; over there, they know all the best tricks.’ —William Leith, The Spectator
‘One may find it difficult to credit that anyone would risk their lives for something that seems unlikely to make a scrap of difference in such a brutalised place. Yet throughout the book the people of Congo are shown to love Western classical music and to respond to it intensely, so perhaps to question this is just another form of ingrained racism.
Even Xavier the warlord has Mozart on his iPod. Pickering’s tale echoes earlier narratives such as Helen Of Troy and Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. All are tales of grand obsessions in which death is diminished by the epic scale of the settings and the single-mindedness of their protagonists.’ —Jane Housham, Express
‘Bombs, kidnapping and a mystery brunette, a dash of sex and a goose called Toto: all these are ingredients in Paul Pickering's stylish page turner Malone, a US pilot based in Kabul, gets involved with a woman who angers the Taliban by making a video of The Wizard of Oz. His wife meanwhile, is in even deeper trouble … This winningly old-fashioned yarn, rooted in plot, character and emotion – brings a troubled country to life.’ —Mail on Sunday
‘Paul Pickering's tragic novel about contemporary Afghanistan combines realistic detail with the kind of picturesque invention more usually associated with comedy … this is a heady work of unashamedly writerly fiction’ —Phil Baker, Sunday Times
‘A tragi-comic portrait of Afghanistan. There is violence and kindness, fear and comfort, guns and explosions and mountain ranges and animals and children. At times, the novel is heartbreaking, at others ridiculous, and this mixture of gravity and absurdity is intoxicating and bewildering. This territory havs been traversed by Graham Greene many times but the implied homage to his intelligent but out-of-their-depth heroes only improves our enjoyment of the novel … A memorable novel about what might well be one of the strangest places on the planet.’ —Kathy Watson, The Tablet