Loosely based on true events—and the real people and animals that played a part—The Elephant of Belfast captures the turmoil of both a city and a young woman’s life during World War II.
S. Kirk Walsh’s first novel opens in 1940, just as German bombardment begins to threaten Northern Ireland. The Bellevue Zoo has welcomed a new elephant named Violet to its menagerie, parading the pachyderm through the streets of Belfast with all the pomp of a visiting dignitary. Onlookers are bewildered, but young zookeeper Hettie Quin finds a sense of purpose in the elephant’s presence.
Hettie’s older sister is dead and her father absent, and she tiptoes around the house she shares with her mother, Rose. Hettie wants to be taken seriously as the only female zookeeper at Bellevue, though navigating her terse boss and the physical demands of working with large exotic animals proves challenging. But Hettie steadily proves to herself that she is capable, even resilient, despite the nearly constant state of upheaval caused by her tense relationship with Rose, confusion about the opposite sex, the ever-present Catholic and Protestant divide and the threat of bombing raids.
When the Luftwaffe bombs start to fall in April 1941, caring for Violet becomes Hettie’s sole focus. In a time where everyone is looking for something solid to hold on to, Hettie has Violet, and their relationship keeps the young woman from falling into total despair.
With such a unique premise, the novel remains engaging despite occasionally clichéd prose and a plot that gets bogged down in detail. Hettie’s grief and longing are palpable, her mounting losses real and tangible. Through heart-stirring scenes of violence and destruction in a city unprepared for the chaos of war, Walsh showcases a flair for description and emotion, and for rendering ordinary lives amid extraordinary circumstances.