September 15, 2013
Land of the Elephants
New Novel Offers Stunning Elephant Adventure in Africa
F. Celis Belina’s new novel Land of the Elephants opens in 1961 when four young children survive an attack in Kenya in which a mysterious attack by presumed poachers or rebels kill their scientist parents. Eighteen years later, one of the children, Catherine, now an adult, returns to Kenya to study elephants, and hopefully to make contact with one young elephant in particular, Victor. Catherine’s parents had cared for Victor when his mother had died and they had helped him to find a new herd when he was a baby, and Catherine has always wondered what became of him. She returns to Africa as a scientist wanting to study elephants, but she has no idea how her return will also lead her into a chaotic world of crime and killing, or how old friendships will be renewed and answers about her father and friends’ parents’ deaths will finally be discovered.
From the moment Catherine arrives in Kenya, everything seems a little strange, from her old friend Chief Elias, who warns her about the man driving her around, to a local police detective wanting to question her about the night of the murders, to rumors about her friend Philip’s stepfather’s involvement in her father’s death. And then there are animals being killed by poachers who are after ivory and animal skins.
When Catherine finds herself ambushed and shot at, a chain of events begins that will result in reunions, revenge, and some of the most magical moments between human and animal ever to appear in a novel.
I can’t say enough about how much in awe I am of the author’s skill in depicting the animals in this story. While I enjoyed all the adventure, romance, and mystery elements woven into the plot, what I liked best were the scenes where Catherine was alone and studying the elephants. I have never been to Kenya, and I have never been closer to an elephant than at the circus or zoo, but F. Celis Belina drew me right into the story, making me feel the wonder and awe that Catherine feels when she encounters the elephants. With Catherine, I came to see the elephants as individuals as she studied their family and social relationships. In fact, one elephant, Isaac, became my favorite character in the book. Unlike many books, this novel does more than use elephants and the other African wildlife purely for local color. This book is as much or more about the wildlife as it is about the human characters, to the point where the reader almost feels like he is getting inside the elephants’ brains, and will often feel amazed by the depth and emotions of the elephants and the way they operate within their own social circles.
While the elephants are the book’s highlight, all the book’s more standard plot elements and characterizations are well done, and Belina does a great job of balancing the suspenseful and climactic moments with plenty of humor and wonder. Many tender moments exist between friends and lovers—and not all the lovers are human. And thrown in is a good chunk of African history, never overly detailed or dull, but just enough to make one understand the history of Kenya at a time when colonialism was ending, efforts were being made to protect endangered species, and the AIDS virus was first rearing its ugly head.
Land of the Elephants is F. Celis Belina’s first novel, but it is written by an author who truly has lived with his characters, befriended them, come to know them and deeply love them. And that is true for both his animal and human characters. Belina understands the psychology of animals and brings the reader a little closer to understanding animals better as well. No one can doubt how much he loves animals—it shows on every page where an elephant appears—and he wins the reader over to being the elephants’ friend as well.
Land of the Elephants is a phenomenal first novel that teaches but never preaches, and it leaves the reader in awe. It deserves a place on the bookshelf with other great novels of Africa such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and other great classic animal novels, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty and Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows. In these pages, prepare to fall in love with Africa and its elephants.
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— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. and award-winning author of The Best Place
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