On the same night that an elephant calf is born to the royal elephants, the head elephant keeper’s wife gives birth to a baby. Knowing she is unlikely to bear more children, Anshu and her servant pass this last daughter off as a son. By the time their deception is revealed, the knowledge has spread too far. Phera must live as a boy and be raised by the mahouts to care for elephants, especially the calf charged to her by the ruler of Kanda Uda Pasrata. Through the coup staged by the British, to the violent incursions the troops make throughout the mountain kingdom, Phera and Siddhi are tied. They travel the renamed kingdom, seeking protection from the vicious forces of the British and one royal engineer in particular, Charles Odell.
What is The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter about?
Told from a variety of perspectives, this book is mostly about Phera and Henry Odell. Both victimized at the hands of the cruel Charles Odell, Henry’s brother, the two want justice for the Sinhalese mountain kingdom. Phera, angry and traumatized by the invasion of the British when she was young, fights against their incursion into her new sanctuary seeking to build a road. Charles Odell, meanwhile, battles malaria and allows the darker tendencies of his personality to drive Sinhalese men as slaves. Henry has long since stopped working directly against his brother, but fights against the despair that caused his opium addiction and his desire to hide from his past.
Genre: Historical fiction and romance
Much of this book is concerned with a portrayal of Phera’s life growing up under British rule. Many historical facts are kept, though the authors’ note at the end clarifies that the primary rebellion in the novel was fictional. There is also a great deal of romance included towards the end of the novel.
Tropes: A girl forced into a boy’s role
It’s obvious from the title that Phera is born a daughter, but in the beginning of the novel it is of the utmost importance that she be disguised as a boy. This is in part due to the deception of her father, which leads to the deception of the king. When events transpire that allow Phera to choose how she will live, she sees the advantages to how she was raised versus the experiences she longs for.
Plot: The rebellion of Kanda Uda Pasrata
Though the main events of the rebellion are fictional, the resistance of the kingdom of Kanda Uda Pasrata to British rule is historical fact. Drosten–a husband wife writing team–pursued careful historical research in order to present the realities of the British crimes against the Sinhalese kingdom.
At no point at the British romanticized, even with one of the Brits being a main protagonist. The invasion into Kanda Uda Pasrata is portrayed as a tragedy of colonialism, and the violence spent on the Sinhalese is decried as barbaric. Charles Odell is an irredeemable monster, and though Henry as his brother has mixed feelings on killing that does not give Charles a free pass. Henry actively works against his brother’s violent nature, not content to be a passive participant in the colonialist and racist behavior Charles inspires. Phera is an interesting main character, with conflicting ideas for herself and a refusal to conform to anyone’s standards. Once set free from her pretend identity, she embraces an unusual mix of her two lives. And of course, she never abandons her loyalty to Siddhi.
I wasn’t initially on board with the romance as it began. Henry and Phera have brushes with one another at various points in the story, and though we know Henry Odell is nothing like his brother it’s still strange for he and Phera to get along so well when his brother was so monstrous to her family. Even Phera’s mother is nervous about Charles standing between her daughter and Henry. It was also a little strange that after suffering so much under the British invasion and resisting them for so long, Phera would easily fall for a British army doctor.
This book does not shy away from gratuitous descriptions of the atrocities exacted by Charles Odell and his men. Major CW for sexual assault, physical abuse, racism, death, rape, and murder. There are several instances of violence throughout the novel, but there is one chapter in particular that cements Charles’ status as a villain through his put down of the rebellion.
This was a beautiful and deeply moving book. I definitely recommend minding content warnings in order to stay safe, but if you can read this book you should. Phera is a compelling main character and her family excellent narrators for the British invasion of Sri Lanka. You’ll root for the Kanda Uda Pasrata kingdom over the British and mourn for the losses during their rebellion. The Odell brothers are two sides of the same coin, the violent and sympathetic towards the Sinhalese kingdom. This book is honest about what happened to Sri Lanka under British colonialism but also includes the hope of new beginnings, new love, and strength in the face of tragedy.
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