S. Kirk Walsh
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-1-6400-9400-0, 336 pgs., $27
April 6, 2021
“Ever since she could remember, Hettie had preferred animals to people. They were always happy to see her, grateful to be fed and given some attention.”
Three-year-old Violet, an Asian elephant shipped from Ceylon, arrives at the Belfast, Northern Ireland, docks in October of 1940, bound for Bellevue Zoo & Gardens. Among the crowds there to greet Violet, “as if British royalty or a famous screen actress were among the steamer’s passengers,” is twenty-year-old Hettie Quinn. The first woman hired as a zookeeper in Belfast, Hettie falls hard and fast for Violet.
Grieving the recent loss of her older sister and abandonment by her father, Hettie is an unconventional young woman trying to support her devastated mother, navigate newfound romance, sort tangled motives, and balance competing obligations while attempting to remain true to herself. When unimaginable tragedy strikes, help arrives from unexpected sources, and Hettie discovers who she is and what she’s made of.
The Elephant of Belfast is S. Kirk Walsh’s debut novel, a beguiling and compelling story of historical fiction set during the 1941 Belfast Blitz. As the war begins to affect the charmed, self-contained world of the zoo (“a quiet, monastic refuge, where an inherent order and system guided its daily way of life”), Hettie must fight for herself and for her charges.
Hettie Quinn’s story is inspired by the life of Denise Weston Austin, one of the first female zookeepers in Belfast. Referred to as “our elephant angel,” you can read about Austin and view historical photos here. Walsh’s research pays dividends for the reader as the sights, sounds, and smells of Belfast rise in the imagination. She conveys the current of “freshness” and “opportunity” as ship works and manufacturing gear up for the British war effort, the “hum” of life and expectation thrumming in the blood, rising with the sandbag walls, evacuations, and air-raid drills; anything might happen and does, as the Luftwaffe drops 674 bombs over Belfast, killing almost a thousand people. Hitler had finally located Belfast on the map, and Walsh’s steady pacing accelerates, never faltering as it hurtles into waking nightmare.
The author has invented a large cast of characters, but the company isn’t unwieldy, each skillfully drawn personality proving original and filling their niche to propel the action. Walsh deftly weaves her subplots into the main narrative, making use of Northern Ireland’s bloody, complicated history to conjure a fearful atmosphere of Catholic and Protestant, IRA and RUC, friend and foe. Hettie’s story is related in third-person-limited perspective, enhancing our experience of the young woman’s isolation, confusion, and uncertain future, feeling as if anything might happen and there’s no way to anticipate or prepare.
Walsh’s imagery brings Violet to life for us, looking like “a giant anvil” as the crane swings her off of the ship and onto the dock, her trunk “unfurl[ing] like an opening fist.” Dialogue sometimes works as comic relief, a respite from the ratcheting tension. Hettie’s friend Eliza has some advice for her: “Rule number one: Never wear your mother’s lipstick.” The zoo animals have dialogue too, as “a call and response” begins between them during a German bombardment, the parrots screaming, “Apocalypse.”
The Elephant of Belfast is a heartfelt and heartbreaking, ultimately inspiring and uplifting, tale of coming-of-age in extraordinary circumstances.
S. Kirk Walsh is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has been widely published in the New York Times Book Review, Longreads, StoryQuarterly, and Electric Literature, among other publications. Over the years, she has been a resident at Ucross, Yaddo, Ragdale, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Walsh is the founder of Austin Bat Cave, a writing and tutoring center that provides free writing workshops for young writers throughout Austin. The Elephant of Belfast is her first novel.