Tania James' newest work took me completely by surprise. Unfamiliar with her earlier writing, I had no idea what an incredible experience lay ahead of me when I agreed to review this book for TLC Book Tours.* The fact that the novel is blurbed by the likes of Karen Russell and Jonathan Safran Foer was my first hint that "The Tusk That Did the Damage" would be something magical.
The novel elegantly braids three distinct stories: a documentarian named Emma, studying alongside an animal (elephant) specialist in South India; the brother of a young poacher; and an elephant known most commonly as The Gravedigger.
If I were to oversimplify the book thematically, I could say that these perspectives present us with the trifecta of viewpoints on animal rights. However, this would fail to take into account the truly exquisite presentation of South Indian culture, or the remarkable way basic human relationships become new and poignant in the writer's hands.
Was he born in chains?
He was taken a calf. His mother was shot by poachers. When the forest guards found him, he was by her side.
Do you think he remembers her?
He remembers everything. That is the elephant's great gift.
After a pause in which it seemed the boy's mind had drifted elsewhere, Mani-Mathai said, "Terrible gift."
Old Man was taken with the simple truth of those words, laid side by side.
It's no small challenge to write convincingly from the standpoint of an elephant, and this was the aspect of the narrative about which I was most skeptical. James completely mastered these passages, however, and I shocked myself to realize the Gravedigger's narrations were often my favorite.
If I had to describe my experience with this novel with a single phrase, I'd use an oxymoron: ferocious tenderness. The foreground of struggle (against government sanctions, against poverty, against interpersonal conflict and persecution) is padded with story-lines that feel almost folkloric, even though they are set in the recent past. And key to each tale is some moment of raw affection that incites a great moving-forward.
*Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing me with an Advanced Reader's Copy.