Thursday, April 11, 2013
Chained, by Lynne Kelly
Hastin is a boy who lives in a desert region in India with his mother and younger sister. Chanda, the girl, has been bitten by fever mosquitoes, and when her illness becomes desperate they take her to the hospital even though they cannot afford it. They learn her treatment will cost 4000 rupees, money they do not have, so Amma (mother) goes to work as a housekeeper in appalling conditions to earn the sum. But wait! There suddenly appears a man named Timir, who pays the debt for them. There's a catch, of course. Timir once owned a prosperous circus, and he dreams of returning to his glory days. He needs an elephant keeper, and asserts that Hastin can do the job. Besides, this is going to be a grand adventure, and when Hastin has worked for Timir for a year to pay the man back, he may return home. The truth, as we might guess, is that Timir has no intention of ever letting Hastin go. But the more immediate problem is that Timir has no elephant. He expects Hastin to trap one in the jungle.
This, he does, with the help of men who dig a pit large enough for a young elephant to fall into and not get out of. Hastin is drawn to the elephants from the beginning, even giving them names as he spies on a herd going to the river for water. When one of his favorites, Nandita, falls into the trap, he's so conflicted that he tries to set her free before the circus men find out. But, though Hastin and Nandita come to love each other in Timir's ragtag circus, both are chained: Nandita literally, and Hastin figuratively, to the debt, and even more so, to what Timir intends as permanent slavery. It will be a long time before either of them is free again.
All these characters, save Timir, are immediately lovable. There are two other important characters also. Sharad, the elephant trainer, has a "good past," but it's buried under a ton of pain and he has become a rigid, mean trainer as a result. And Ne Min, the circus cook, is a wise, grandfatherly type who obviously loves elephants but is hiding some secret shame.
This is a wonderful debut novel. Characters, prose, structure, action, research -- all are excellent. Highly recommended.