Four Nails by G.J. Berger
From its striking cover to opening passages beckoning readers into the camp of an elephant trainer in ancient India and the paths that lead him to the battles of the Second Punic War, Four Nails entices readers to an age commonly identified by one name – Hannibal Barca–though nearly as often shrouded in mystery. Author G.J. Berger lifts the veil a bit, bringing us closer to events of the era and the “[e]veryday ordinary people made to survive, to endure, to nurture their children, and love those close to them in times of great hardship[.]” Relating the tale of one man’s odyssey, the storyteller opens to readers a world many of us have had precious little opportunity to explore.
As this prequel to Berger’s first novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, opens in 227 B.C., we meet Ashoka and his family’s elephant camp from which he is sold into slavery by his desperate father. After long and weary travel, he is tasked with training elephants for war, then sold into Hannibal’s service, where he once again meets up with Four Nails, the elephant he’d previously forged a special bond with.
As Hannibal leads his army through the Alps in his aim to reach and defeat Rome, Ashoka pours his entire existence into the care and consideration of his team, as his memories and other experiences also provide us with glimpses into his love for another and determination to speak truth, even to a power that could easily crush him. We come to understand his view of the differences and similarities between the two armies he has experienced as Ashoka endeavors to survive this war he never asked to serve in and make his way back to India. Simultaneously a love story unwinds, serving to contrast the ravaging of the Italian peninsula and showcasing acts of bravery that won’t make it to the history books.
Having previously experienced this author’s narrative style in the course of another telling of war and defense of one’s personal interests, I was looking forward to Four Nails, especially given the amazing exploits of a military commander bringing an army and trained elephants across a mountain range stretching through the territories of hostile weather, tribes, natural conditions and even one’s own turmoil and conflicts with confederates. Result: lush, descriptive passages and protagonist’s voice not only does not disappoint; it gripped me from start to finish.
Before reading any of Berger’s works, I was aware of only very basic information about Hannibal, Carthage or the era, and was impressed to find that historical information I researched matched the true events played out in Four Nails. Once engrossed in the tale, it was easy to be drawn in and mesmerized by the author’s ability to wind together several layers and even stories, threads from one Indian boy’s life that meet with those of others, how they inform and affect one another and the places—geographical as well as emotional—to where they lead.
It would seem that in a story of this scope, the narrative details can’t be rushed, and Berger understands this well. Ashoka’s experiences unwind at a pace natural to events and its flow allows Ashoka, and not the war, to be the center. In this manner the novelist doesn’t allow his story to fall into the trap of mere rehashing or history lesson. He does a magnificent job of portraying ancient Indian and Carthaginian cultures: their habits, elements, sensibilities, ethics, worship and more. Immersed in the story as readers become, the characters do not seem so distant as the dates might insinuate. Living, breathing people with affections and fears populate this time and this tale, and the author lets them expand. We truly do get to see them in their moments of great hardship and what they do to endure and to love.
It is some time before we are given to recognize the significance of the beloved elephant’s name; once we reach this point, Berger gifts us with an even larger understanding of Ashoka’s character, which renews the continued reality of the world he holds dear, no matter where fate places him. We urge him on, even as the boy seems to resist our persuasions to make an escape in a way that makes sense to us; he will do it on his own terms. The author’s ability to portray an authentic voice for each of the larger characters is brilliant, and we can feel the angry power, modest timidity, quiet determination, for example, as distinct personalities hold their own.
Four Nails speaks to friendship, loyalty, truth and heroism in a time of destruction, cruel conquest and shifting of powers, when all has been lost and the impending new order wants to extract yet more. Insightfully probing into the recesses of history, the author captures the voices of those seemingly lost to their time and those that follow. This is historical fiction that causes us to us reconsider all our previous notions about Carthaginian civilization—and ours.
Thank you so much to G.J. Berger, who so kindly gifted me a copy of Four Nails with no expectation of a review. I am honored as well as humbled to promote this poignant and fascinating tale, a study and a story that I highly recommend. You can purchase Four Nails at Amazon or Amazon UK. It is the prequel to award-winning South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon (reviewed here), which can also be purchased at Amazon or Amazon UK.