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A great idea but not brilliantly executed.
on 1 August 2016
Elephant Moon, John Sweeney’s debut novel, is the story of a class of orphans trying to escape Burma during WWII. As their British colonisers abandon Burma, the Japanese begin to attack. The half-Burmese orphans, the result of coloniser affairs with local women, are unwanted by either side during the conflict. Having been raised by the British, their only protector is their school teacher Grace, who chooses to help the orphans rather than being evacuated.
Grace and sixty-two school children face the mammoth task of reaching India across rivers, jungles, and mountains. As if the landscape didn’t pose enough peril, the group are under the constant threat of Japanese soldiers. When hope seems lost, a herd of fifty-three elephants and their riders appear, also on their way to India, who aid the orphans on their journey. Elephant Moon is based on the true story of the elephant men who rescued refugees in 1942.
The novel presents a different side of the WWII story, one not commonly documented, and provides a good opportunity to learn something new about the war. It portrays an interesting and less-heard perspective, such as the British abandonment of those they colonised. Moreover, the central concept of the elephants aiding orphans safety is appealing, and the descriptions of the elephants is wonderful, particularly Oomy and his mother. Undeniably, this novel has great potential.
However, it was evident that Sweeney is not a natural fiction writer. Award-winning journalist at the Observer and Panorama, Sweeney does build an impressive sense of suspense throughout and illustrates the landscape and war well. However, after a slow start and a crescendo-building middle, the ending is rushed, and like many authors, Sweeney misunderstands the concept of an epilogue (when will they learn what an epilogue is?).
Moreover, his characterisation lacked depth, and most characters fit into good or evil stereotypes. His ability to draw a believable female character was weak, and while Grace should have been portrayed as a powerful female character who sacrificed her own safety to help her class, instead she was a almost parodied goody two shoes whose main attribute seemed to be her ridiculously-often-mentioned attractiveness (pass us a bucket please!).
Sweeney’s best writing skills were displayed in the story of Eddie, where he seemed much more comfortable detailing a male character. Unfortunately, here Sweeney fell into the trap of adding an unnecessary subplot that distracted and detracted from what was a strong enough story on its own. The novel would have been much improved if this subplot had been avoided and Sweeney had focussed his efforts on padding out Grace, the orphans, and the ending, and giving readers more of what they wanted – the elephants!
In general, for a short novel Sweeney tried to take on too much, with the outcome that it seemed disjointed and chaotic (while we mused that this may have been to depict the chaos of war, we found it more likely a result of an undeveloped writing style). There was a lack of depth and focus, and the novel either needed to be longer to cover all of the subjects or shorter and more focused.
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