Saturday, 10 January 2009

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

This is a very readable story told from the perspective of an old man in a residential home reviewing his life working for a travelling circus in 1930's America. The story alternates between Jacob at 23, and his life now and his frustrations at his frailty and assisted living situation. There are lots of details about circus life, both the human and animal contingent and a captivating, though slightly predictable, love triangle. Jacob has two major loves, one human,one animal and the two are juxtaposed quite well.

I know I'm probably one of the last people to get to this book and I've got mixed feelings about it. It has obviously been researched very well, and I found the most interesting aspects of it to be the details about life in depression America. I have always found it shocking and almost unbelievable that only 80 years ago people were allowed to starve to death because of an economic crisis. The description of hoboes tying shoes to their feet really hit home for me. I also found the sections that deal with Jacob as an old man compelling and they brought up issues of family bonds and loyalty.

I did find the main body of the story a bit much of a fairy tale though, particularly the ending. I won't spoil it, just in case there is anyone who hasn't read this yet. Everyone likes a happy ending but this just seemed unreal and a bit twee. I found myself trying to put alternative interpretations onto it. For example, did it really happen or is it Jacob imagining what he would like to happen. There are moments in the sections involving Jacob as an old man where he doubts his own sanity, and, tellingly, a passage where he comes to understand that sometimes people tell themselves something for so long that they start to believe it themselves.

However, I think this is just me trying to compensate for the slight lack of substance in the book by finding things that aren't supposed to be there! I think I might have given the impression here that I didn't like this book. It was well worth the few hours it took me to read it, I just didn't think it was brilliant. As an easy read and escapism i would recommend it. And since this is what the blurb says I can't really complain.

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