It’s early 1942 and British occupied Rangoon has fallen to the Japanese.
For Grace Collins and her school of 62 Anglo-Burmese orphans, these are desperate times.
Their only hope is India and fast – the monsoon rain will soon be upon them, making the trek impossible.
But with an onset of tragedies, options dwindle to nothing – until an unlikely herd of rescuers cross their path.
Elephant Moon is the debut novel by investigative journalist and author John Sweeney.
Beginning at the Sheffield Telegraph, Sweeney spent 12 years covering wars, revolutions and social unrest across over 60 countries for The Observer.
He then worked for the BBC from 2001 – 2014 and still has continued involvement in the production of BBC Panorama programmes.
Over the years Sweeney has won two Royal Television Society prizes; an Emmy; an Amnesty International Prize; a Sony Gold award; the ‘What the Papers Say’ Journalist of the Year Prize and the Paul Foot Award.
Alongside his novel, Sweeney has publish seven other non-fiction books – the latest of which (North Korea Undercover: Inside The World’s Most Secret State) was published in 2013.
Elephant Moon is a third person narrative, with an entirely fictitious group of characters and story line.
Sweeney based the novel on the documented accounts of brave men – like Gyles Mackrell – who used trained elephants to navigate the perilous terrain to rescue WWII refugees.
I found the novel to be quite abrupt in places, especially in the beginning, and it took me a little while to get into.
Initially I did think about putting the novel down and starting a different one, but if I had, I would have unknowingly missed out on an excellent book.
I would say stick with it for the first 60 or so pages and it will begin to reward you. The deeper you dig in, the more the story will begin to come together.
Throughout the plot there are some tremendous hidden twists – a couple of which will knock you sideways.
The text is undeniably frank and Sweeney doesn’t hold back on the detail – so if you are a particularly squeamish reader, I would suggest you give this one a wide berth.
Whilst dark and graphic in places, the story also has all the elements of a good classic romance too.
There are the archetypal characters: the calculating, monstrous villain; the self-sacrificing and strong beauty; the awkward and obscure hero who fights to win the day.
The bad guys are wickedly bad and the good guys are righteously good. There’s rivalry, passion, guilt, betrayal, tragedy and of course, adventure. Not to mention, the plot is very readable too.
Tenacious school mistress Grace, plays the central character to plot line – acting as the thread that ties all the other characters together.
Despite her faults, she’s an easy character to like and understand. But for me, the real stars of this novel were the elephants.
Sweeney has done a fabulous job penning their various personalities and social interactions.
It’s this detail and unique topic which sets it apart from others books of the time period.
Overall, there has been a great care taken with this story and it shows in the results.
If you are contemplating reading this novel, I would say jump in, persevere and you’re in for a treat.
First published in the UK by Silvertail Books Ltd, Elephant Moon retails at £8.99. Available in the US also from Silvertail Books, the novel retails at $15.95.