Monday, May 25, 2015

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James has such a strong sense of place that I felt immediately transported to the rural setting in Kerala in southern India. The story centers around an elephant called the Gravedigger. He was orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into labour. Later, he escaped and became a killer of men. Part of the narration is from the elephant's point of view, a stylistic feat that James pulls off nicely. She uses a close third person, close enough to glimpse inside the alien brain of another species.

"The flames of tiny lamplights trembled down the road to the temple. The Gravedigger could smell the hot oil, the chili-rubbed corn, the ice cream and peanuts, the plastic of inflatable toys, the petals of flowers, marigolds and rose water, all these shifting, rippling scents, and beneath them all, a heavy silt: the smell of people."

Images are from postcards I got in Sri Lanka in 1978. Copyright Ceylon Pictorials, Colombo.
The point of view shifts with different narrators, allowing a complex picture to emerge. The following is from the publisher's description on the dust jacket:

Transplanting rice (in Sri Lanka).
"Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger's violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother, Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film's subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three story lines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature."

Even the minor characters seem very real, making it easy to feel swept up in their lives. The story is a gripping and immersive experience. I cooked rice and curry after I had finished, as a way to linger in the world of The Tusk That Did the Damage.

Readalikes (with links to my reviews): Fauna (Alissa York) for realistic fiction about humans and wilderness coexisting, while incorporating some animal viewpoints; and two layered, sensory novels by Ru Freeman that are set in Sri Lanka: On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl.

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