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