The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

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The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: This composite picture of the state of wildlife conservation in India is told from three perspectives: an elephant named the Gravedigger, a poacher, and a documentary filmmaker.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781784700584

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Tania James was a Fulbright Fellow in New Delhi in 2011–12. For this, her second novel after Atlas of Unknowns (shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian literature) and the story collection Aerogrammes, she clearly draws on her personal knowledge of India in all its contradictions, especially when it comes to environmental policy. The novel alternates between three perspectives: a third-person account of an elephant named the Gravedigger and first-person narratives from a poacher and a documentary filmmaker.

The Gravedigger has memories, emotions and dreams: he watched as his mother was killed by poachers, and his behaviour in years to come looks like deliberate revenge. He has killed or injured multiple humans; his nickname refers to his habit of 'burying' his victims under palm fronds. The poacher is nineteen-year-old Manu, who learned everything he knows about the forest from his older brother, Jayan. When the Gravedigger kills their cousin, Raghu, the brothers have to decide what they are willing to give up in their pursuit of ivory.

The last piece of the narrative puzzle is Emma, who is in Kerala with Teddy to shoot a documentary in a wildlife park. They film an elephant calf being rescued from a ditch and reunited with its mother, and also interview Samina Hakim, Divisional Range Officer for the Forest Department. In the process they stumble upon what looks like a conspiracy: the Forest Department has been authorizing Shankar Timber Company to fell trees, putting them in conflict with villagers who rely on the forest for their livelihood. What else might this government body be willing to turn a blind eye to?

James ably intersperses the three voices as she explores how people often fail to live up to their ideals and make harmful assumptions. For instance, Emma realises she has been stereotyping one of the Indian wildlife officers: 'had I cast him as the sweet, clumsy native before he'd even opened his mouth?' I also enjoyed James's use of metaphors: 'Morning broke like a frying pan in the face, or stomach, rather' as Emma has a painful bout of IBS after some greasy foods and dehydration; 'The tree seemed plucked from folklore with its monstrous blossoms, its hunchback trunk, the roots that slithered and splayed'; and 'The moon made an early cameo, a translucent scoop of vanilla melting into the blue.'

Despite these attributes, there was something that stopped me from truly enjoying the novel. It was one of those books I had to force myself through. Perhaps it was the environmental agenda: if a book is going to wear its message on its sleeve so openly, it has to live up to it in terms of the writing. Unlike, say, T.C. Boyle or Barbara Kingsolver, James doesn't quite have the necessary gifts of storytelling and character development. I might have preferred it if the whole novel had been told from Emma's point of view, with perhaps one climactic encounter with the Gravedigger to make the whole poaching question immediate and not simply academic. This is not to say that James does not write well, just that overall this feels like a minor work: a flash in the pan that won't necessarily stand the test of time.

Further reading suggestion: The Hunt for the Golden Mole: All Creatures Great and Small and Why They Matter by Richard Girling deals with conservation and wildlife crimes, while The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago and Margaret Jull Costa also has an elephant as a main character.

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