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As a comedian, I quite like Sandi Toksvig's brand of gentle, intelligent, occasionally surreal humour and was interested to see how this translated into a standard novel.
Things start promisingly and the opening chapters made me laugh out loud several times. Toksvig's strength is not so much in traditional "joke telling", but rather in her use of language to make seemingly irrelevant or mundane things amusing. This strength is very much apparent early on. There are a number of times when she transforms perfectly ordinary situations into very funny ones through the careful use of a well-chosen word or phrase. It's this use of language - clever without being smug - that establishes the style and tone of the book and sets the early pace. Quirky and amusing, the initial chapters lead you to expect a gentle, but funny tale.
The trouble is, the opening pages are easily the most engaging. The initial plot follows a young English girl (Dorothy) as she moves to 60s America to set up home with her family. Toksvig's account of the journey to America and early accounts of family life (which I suspect are partially autobiographical) are in equal turns funny, touching, realistic and cringe-inducing. Anyone with a family will recognise some of the sources of frustration and embarrassment portrayed in the text. Similarly, the initial cultural misunderstandings, whilst nothing new, bring a strong element of humour and fun to the account.
The book is also well written. There's a light and simple approach to telling the story and so it's a nice easy read. Although the plot line is not the most explosive in the world (in many respects, it's rather mundane and down to earth), it's well structured. There are some events which unfold in such as way as to make you raise your eyebrows in admiration of how carefully the various plot strands have been woven together. It's essentially a quirky look at small town life, and it's interesting to see how the various characters fit together and how their lives have impacted on each others for years and the actions of one person causes waves across the whole neighbourhood.
At some point, though, it all begins to unravel. Dorothy discovers a small, run-down zoo, populated by a commune of women and begins to take an interest in both its history and its future. It's here that things start to drag (and sadly, this is early on in the 300 page book). Much of the promised humour suddenly seems to drain away as a new, and dull, unrealistic plot (involving the zoo women preparing a home for a new elephant) starts to take over. From this point onwards, the book seemed a little unsure of how to pitch itself. There were still moments of comedy, but these were fewer and further apart. Instead, the book began to rely more on its "quirkiness". Although initially endearing, it quickly began to pall. There is a fine line between "quirkiness" and "twee" and at some point (I'm not exactly sure when) the book crossed that line, becoming smug and rather self-satisfied, rather than amusing.
At the same time, the book has pretensions of grandeur. Set in 60s America against the background of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and other seismic upheavals of that era, it inevitably touches on some large themes. It would have been interesting to read a humorous look at how these issues affected small town USA, but that never really happens. Events are mentioned and then ignored or sidelined. The book has most to say on the issue of women's rights, but even here, it's neither profound enough to qualify as a "serious" look at the issues, nor sufficiently funny to make it a humorous take on events. Perhaps most critically of all, it's not different enough to offer a new perspective on these issues and fails to stand out from the raft of similarly-themed books.
To tell the truth, at some point (again, I'm not sure exactly when), I became totally disenchanted with the whole thing and couldn't wait to reach the end (though not in a good way). From starting off as a fun, quirky and amusing little title, it became a real chore to finish. I became more and more disengaged from the plot and the characters to the extent that by the end didn't really care what had happened to whom or why. I limped over the finish line to reach the last pages only because I don't like leaving a book half finished once I've started reading it.
In fairness, I'm probably not the target audience for this book. Given the fact that the book is written by a woman, features predominantly female characters and deals (however superficially) with issues of women's emancipation, I suspect its target audience was those people who lack the Y Chromosome. Mrs SWSt certainly enjoyed it a little more than I did (although still didn't think it was anything approaching compulsive reading). I've read a pretty wide range of authors and genres and this is the first time I've ever felt excluded from a book purely on the grounds of gender.
Whistling for the Elephants is really a bit of a non-event, an insipid nothing. It's undemanding, inconsequential and inoffensive, yet this makes it so unremittingly bland that it fades into nothingness. Despite the review quotes on the covers, it's not going to set the literary world alight. Opening chapters aside, I found little to recommend Toksvig as an author and think I'll stick to watching her on TV or listening on the radio. This is where her intelligent, but accessible brand of humour seems more at home.
Whistling for the Elephants
Black Swan, 2000
ISBN: 0 552 99819 2
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© Copyright SWSt 2008