Book Review: Elephant Moon by John Sweeney

As the Second World War rages, the Japanese Imperial Army enters Burma and the British rulers prepare to flee. Among those is a orphan school of sixty-two Anglo-Burmese children, born to local women after affairs with foreign men. Half-castes, they are not acknowledged by either side and they are to be abandoned with no one to protect them. Their teacher, Grace Collins, a young Englishwoman, refuses to join the European evacuation and instead sets out to deliver the orphans to the safety of India. She faces impossible odds because between her and India lie one thousand miles of jungle, mountains, rivers and the constant, unseen threat of the Japanese. With Japanese soldiers chasing them down, the group’s chances of survival shrink – until they come across a herd of fifty-three elephants who, with their awesome strength and kindness, quickly become the orphans only hope of survival. Elephant Moon is based on a true story,

I wasn’t sure where the story was going with the opening scene, which rather depicted the worst of British Ex-patriot behaviour. The truth is, I’m still not sure why the story began here. It began several pages later, with the children and the Head Teacher. Elephant Moon is peppered with flaws like this, but John Sweeney can tell a story (he is a journalist after all), and that is what carried me through his imagined account of the true story. His characterisation was lacking, with an unbelievably angelic heroine, Grace Collins, and a dastardly villain, Gregory, the solder and ex-con.

Sweeney captures setting effectively – with almost cinematic quality – adding to the sense of danger from the environment itself. The plight of the party of children seems impossible (but rather like Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas), it is possible, in a way that is not yet revealed. Here comes the highlight in the encounter with the elephant platoon, with beautiful observations of elephant behaviour, particularly the relationship between Mother and Oomy.

Elephant Moon was a page turner for me; remarkable given the flaws, and the almost ‘princess’ quality of Grace to fall in love at a moment’s notice. The last in her affections in the story seemed most implausible to the gritty, determined woman that took on the task of fleeing Rangoon with her charges. Yes, it could have been a better book, but it was still a gripping and moving read. I would recommend it, despite its flaws.

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