With novels constructed on interlocking stories, authors run the risk of one or more of the tales not meeting the same mark on the compelling scale, leaving perhaps, a story that doesn’t hold its own against the others. In The Tusk That Did the Damage, short-listed for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize, Tania James (The Atlas of Unknowns—reviewed in IC August 2009; Aerogrammes—reviewed in IC October 2012) nearly falls into that trap but manages to step back before being completely snared.
Taking the reader into the jungles of South India, James’ writing continues to refine in her third book and second novel. In it, she takes on the reprehensible slaughter of elephants for the ivory trade. James tells three stories that alternate and converge, and the book begins with beautifully-written chapters that ooze with the promise of continued excellence: “The Elephant,” “The Poacher,” “The Filmmaker,” each introduced in succession, and as it happens, each in their proper order of accomplished storytelling.
“The Elephant,” also known as “The Gravedigger,” has his own story. It is a biography of hardship, loneliness, misunderstanding, and struggle. Told in third person, this is arguably the most compelling of the three stories, with James nearly getting into the elephant’s head close enough to have written it in first person. However, by resisting that first-person temptation, “The Gravedigger” isn’t self-viewed as a victim. Rather, he is developed as a product of his environment and personal history. By accomplishing this feat, the debate over elephants being living, breathing creatures of beauty vs. killers, destroyers of life and property, becomes all the more complex.
The poacher’s story, like the filmmaker’s, is told in first person, but unlike the other two stories, it could well have been a standalone novella. Here, the covert world of the ivory trade is introduced along with the poverty that drives men to think there will be fast, easy cash involved. Manu, who desires acceptance like his poacher brother Jayan, wrestles with his moral compass in an attempt to seek revenge for a family death and impress the woman he loves.
The filmmaker’s story brings an “observer” factor to the novel and, in comparison, loses strength even as it adds a thorny layer when the focus shifts to sex and 23-year old Emma—the narrator and filmmaker—goes against her own code of not getting involved with her subjects. Eventually, this story recharges itself when Emma uncovers much more than what her documentary of a renowned elephant veterinarian was meant to be; she discovers dark proceedings that only lead to danger and tragedy.
Tusk raises important questions about conservationism, morality, and mortality. There is a near-human embodiment of “The Elephant”—as imperfect as we humans and as vulnerable as any of us in situations we don’t understand—and a creative examination of those who engage in the illegal ivory trade. In the end, the haunting question that lingers is not “Is poaching a crime?” for we know that it is. The question becomes, “When the tusk did the damage, what damage was done to whom?”
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association. Between assignments, she writes fiction, hunts for the perfect Bloody Mary, and heads to the beach as often as she can.