Mahouts and the gentle beasts

John Sweeney’s ‘Elephant Moon’ is an epic based on the true story of the men who helped refugees escape Burma during the second world war

Elephant Moon, by John Sweeney, Silvertail Books, RRP£18.99, 300 pages

Investigative reporter John Sweeney is probably best known for losing his temper with an interviewee while making a BBC documentary about Scientology. This, his first novel, is an epic based on the true story of the “elephant men” who helped refugees escape Burma during the second world war.

Grace Collins is an English schoolteacher in colonial Rangoon trying to protect her pupils as the Japanese invade and the British are routed. Fleeing into the jungle, Grace and her charges are rescued by a convoy of elephants and their mahouts, and the children befriend the gentle beasts.

Sweeney’s descriptions of the Burmese climate can be evocative (“The slow wet heat of Burma lay on her, as thick and prickly as a woollen blanket”) but characterisation is simple and anachronistic: the villains are all racists, while the heroes are exemplary liberals. As with that rant about the Scientologists, Sweeney’s novel is right-minded but rather lacking in subtlety.

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