Knopf Doubleday: 3/10/2015
eBook Review Copy, 240 pages
Hardcover ISBN-13: 9780385354127
My Thoughts:...a tour de force set in South India that plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and, in a feat of audacious imagination, an infamous elephant known as the Gravedigger.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.With lyricism and suspense, Tania James animates the rural landscapes where Western idealism clashes with local reality; where a farmer’s livelihood can be destroyed by a rampaging elephant; where men are driven to poaching. In James’ arrestingly beautiful prose, The Tusk That Did the Damage blends the mythical and the political to tell a wholly original, utterly contemporary story about the majestic animal, both god and menace, that has mesmerized us for centuries.
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James is a highly recommended novel set in southern India, that covers the illegal poaching of ivory through three unique viewpoints. These three viewpoints are presented in alternating chapters.
The first viewpoint is that of the elephant which the villagers now call the Gravedigger. He witnesses the killing of his mother, after which he is captured, loved, trained, and abused. He later escapes, which is when he becomes The Gravedigger and is a source of fear and hatred.
The second viewpoint is the poacher, Jayan. This section is narrated by his younger brother Manu, who has been asked to look after his older brother. Jayan is attracted to the money he can make through poaching, although he tries to hide his illegal activities from his family at first. They would prefer he worked hard at farming. Gravedigger has already killed one member of their family.
The third viewpoint is that of the filmmakers, specifically Emma. Emma and Teddy are Americans in India to film a documentary about a vet named Ravi at an elephant sanctuary. They are trying to capture on film his technique for reuniting baby elephants with their mothers, who are known to disown babies who smell of human contact. A love triangle develops between the three.
James succeeds admirably in the chapters told through Gravedigger's point of view. I was sobbing like a baby over some of these sections, which are gruesome and heartbreaking. She brilliantly captures how a sentient being would react and be traumatized by seeing their mother killed, and then being captured and trained by the same kind of beings who did the act. She also evokes the sensory world of an animal and the resulting confusion his capture would cause. These are the strongest chapters in the book.
Although not quite as compelling, the chapters told through the poachers point of view are certainly enlightening. The financial reality of poverty and the money that can be made through poaching is brought out, as well as the problem of elephants destroying the farmer's crops. Certainly the actual poachers are low on the list of those who benefit from their illegal acts. The least successful chapters are those of the filmmakers.
James is an excellent writer and the prose flows beautifully, managing to portray each individual, their struggles, pain, and confusion, along with the questions of morality the narrative begs we ask. She manages to capture the clash of man and nature in an individualized way, but, in the end, it is also a rather depressing tale.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes.
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