Book Review: The Elephant by Peter Carnavas

TL:DR – a tale of a young girl looking to bring colour back into the life of her father.

Summary (warning: spoiler)

Olive doesn’t know what to do. Whenever she sees her father, there is a grey elephant with him. An elephant that casts a giant shadow and weighs her father down in a way that makes him look exhausted all the time. If she could only figure out how to get rid of that elephant then she knows there is a chance for the light to penetrate the darkness that envelopes his heart.

Thankfully, she has her grandfather with her who has moved in, and she can always talk to her best friend, Arthur, at school. Surely, the three of them can come up with a way to remove the elephant.

Review

I’m a big fan of picture book author and illustrator Peter Carnavas. When I met him at Maleny on the Sunshine Coast, I bought his picture book ‘Oliver and George’ for my daughter and got his autograph. There is a certain whimsy and nostalgia to his stories and illustrations that remind me of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang by comic strip legend, Charles Schulz.

The Elephant is Carnavas’s debut novel and first foray outside of the picture book realm. Aimed at junior fiction readers, the story examines grief and sadness through a child’s eyes, and how a child can learn about ‘old and wonderful things’ (i.e., the past) to help heal the present and move forward.

For Olive’s father, he is still mourning the death of his wife. Olive is old enough to understand that the manifestation of this sadness in the form of a giant, grey elephant is metaphorical. Conjured by her own imagination. However, its existence is real enough to her that it impacts all her interactions with him. She can tell his mind is elsewhere, full of untold stories and memories that she cannot access.

This naturally causes Olive to feel sad, but she obtains comfort from her little dog, Freddie, and her grandfather who picks her up after school and enjoys spending time with her. She especially gets excited whenever grandfather picks her up wearing a purple backpack because it means he is taking her somewhere she hasn’t been before. Their afternoon field trips include a second hand store filled with old and wonderful things, a nature reserve and a cricket oval where they throw paper airplanes.

The loving relationship between Olive and her grandfather is obvious, but things take a turn when Olive falls out of the jacaranda tree in their backyard. The nasty accident leaves her unconscious for a week and when she wakes up she sees her grandfather looking sad, worried and weary. More so, she notices that he now has a grey tortoise following him around. Her grandfather is guilt ridden because he normally makes sure she puts on her helmet when she climbs the jacaranda tree, but on the day of the accident, he didn’t.

Thus, with the help of her schoolfriend Arthur, she goes about getting rid of the tortoise first. She does this through the school, which is celebrating its one hundred year birthday, and the kids are presenting to their families things that are ‘old and wonderful’. Olive chooses to sing a song that she and her grandfather always sings on their field trips. She then explains to the audience that her grandfather is also ‘old and wonderful’ and her love heals her grandfather causing the grey tortoise to disappear.

Together, they then set up a plan to try and get rid of the elephant. The plan is inspired by all the things Olive has learned about ‘old and wonderful’ things she has seen and experienced. When the plan works, the elephant finally departs, and her father lets in some sunshine in the form of her daughter.

In an unexpected twist (at least for a junior fiction novel), there is a touching scene at the end where it is revealed that Freddie the dog is also imaginary. When she thanks Freddie for being there during all the times she felt sad and says he can now also leave, it is poignant and effecting.

The Elephant is a must read for junior readers but is the type of story that adults (especially parents) will be moved by. We all need colour in our lives, and I can’t think of a better way than reading this delightful story with your child.

5 out of 5