the tusk that did the damage

As part of a retail therapy trip to Rainy Day Books, my local indie, I picked up The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James, because I’m a sucker for elephants because they’re awesome. Look at that cover! Couldn’t resist. From Goodreads:

Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. 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 storylines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature.

I devoured this book in one weekend. James’s writing for Tusk is airy and has an appropriate sense of sadness to it, with many strikingly beautiful sentences. It was a quiet but potent read for a rainy weekend at home, especially if you care about elephants and animal conservation. Despite being such a short book, James was able to fully flesh out the filmmakers, poachers, and elephant handlers as individuals.

The issues for me lay in the balance of the three narratives—I would have loved more Gravedigger and less filmmakers. Or perhaps replace the filmmakers with ivory consumers? That would have made this book even more effective a statement on the ivory trade. It felt at times that Emma was the main character rather than the Gravedigger. Also, while the Gravedigger’s chapters were the most interesting and engrossing—I loved the elephant lore!—they evolved from being in the Gravedigger’s head to being about his handlers more. Still good, just… I would have loved to feel what the Gravedigger felt more.

I enjoyed this heartrending tale very much, despite a few flaws, and think a great companion read would be Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, an imaginative tale told entirely from the elephants’ perspectives.

Read from May 9 to 10, 2015.

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