Girl zone

Whistling for the Elephants

Sandy Toksvig <em>Bantam, 300pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0593044800

Had the cast of characters in this slender but rich novel not included a parrot with a vocabulary as appalling as it is short (its one-word repertoire is, to put it mildly, startlingly pungent), one would suspect that this is a book that deserves the accolade of being recommended for children as well as adults. Even after the parrot first produces its single eye-popping syllable, there are elements in this account of a child's 1968 summer in a small upstate New York town that would speak powerfully to young readers as well as to the adults for whom the book was published. Sadly, however, it is unlikely there will be many elders sufficiently liberal and uncensorious to put the book into the hands of their young daughters.

Sadly, because it offers a feminist fantasy of a most satisfying kind. Dorothy, the ten-year-old protagonist, is intelligent, resourceful, brave, witty and kind. She has a deep loathing for all things girly and insists on wearing clothes - blazer, crisp white shirt, carefully knotted tie, peaked sailor's cap - that display her in the way she yearns to be seen - as a rakish person, who spends many hours trying to persuade people to call her Cap'n instead of Dorothy. "It didn't work," she records phlegmatically. "Not a popular child. Not even with my parents."

And, oh, those parents. Toksvig here gives us a portrait of a monstrous maternal figure, steeped in selfishness and totally bemused by the child she has produced, which inevitably makes the reader wonder about how far the text is autobiographical. Mother is beautiful, a little raddled, perfumed and pomaded, "strictly first class"; nails, voice, hair, clothes. She is a worshipper at the shrine of her own appearance who interacts with no one and spends her time - and therefore Dorothy's time - travelling. She is a dry sort of person ("there was absolutely nothing moist about Mother") who survives largely on cigarettes and Martinis. When the film is made (as it must surely be) then Mother will have to be played by Joanna Lumley in Ab Fab's Patsy mode. It would be perfect casting.

Father, 20 years Mother's senior, who never speaks above a whisper owing to an unluckily bouncing cricket ball making contact with his larynx in his school days, is something in the Foreign Office and as helpless as his wife when it comes to caring for children. Edward Fox is the casting here, in his most choked heir-to-the-throne form. Dorothy's small brother is no problem; father packs him off to boarding school in England when he is posted to New York and installs Mother and Dorothy in the small town of Sassapaneck, New York, leaving them to cope as best they can.

And here the explorative, beady-eyed observer of all about her that is Dorothy comes into a world she is able to make her own. She meets a cast of neighbours and shopkeepers, undertakers and children, dropouts and recluses who are all in some way slightly weird; it's a bit like a Fellini film, only not quite. Everything in this book is like that; delicately off-centre in such a way that you find yourself laughing aloud and then can't explain the joke to someone else because it has been built up over so many beautifully written and structured pages. Like the account of how the local kids go to classes to learn life-saving, since the town is on the water's edge, and are introduced to Resussa-Annie, a blow-up doll they're supposed to use to practise mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The boys find a very different use for Annie's pouting mouth and Dorothy's education progresses fast.

And then she discovers the zoo, a worn-down establishment based on what was once the home of some extraordinarily exotic people, and Dorothy gets caught up in past and present in such a way that she learns a great deal about herself and, most importantly, learns to like herself for the woman she is and will become. Very much not girly, but wonderfully female in every sense of the word.

Whistling for the Elephants (the text explains the title, and it would be a wicked reviewer who gave away the story) is that rare thing, a truly feminist fantasy. With animals given the names of great women of the past, a cool hippie girl who nicknames Dorothy "Sugar", which she prefers to Cap'n after all, lots of anti-Vietnam war stuff and a gloriously cinematic finale in which the women of the town save the elephants and the zoo and the men get their comeuppance in spades, all providing a deeply satisfying ending, this is a book every girl should read. If, that is, she has elders who can cope with the parrot's vocabulary, as well as Dorothy's sometimes painfully clear-eyed view of adult behaviour, including the sexual sort. I wish I could have read it when I was ten or so. I think it might have changed my life.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis