Oh, did I say delightful? Let’s try fairly depressing. But in the best of ways.
This book tells three different stories, just barely intertwined. There’s the story of the elephant, whose mother is killed by poachers and who ends up in some rich guy’s rental elephant collection. We find out pretty early on that he gains the nickname “the Gravedigger”, and why, but the how is a mystery until near the end. There’s also the story of a young Indian boy named Manu, whose cousin gets killed by the Gravedigger. We get his story both before and after this terrible event, along with the story of his poacher brother. Then there’s the story of Emma, part of a two-person American film crew doing a little documentary on a veterinarian who helps reunite lost elephant calves with their mothers, which is apparently very difficult, and who also helps the Forest Department track down poachers.
There’s a lot going on here, is what I’m saying. The narratives are interestingly paced, so that you’re never quite sure where each is placed in time relative to the others. You know that some things are going to happen, but not necessarily to whom or when or why. It’s a nice changeup from my usual beloved multi-narrator stories, I have to admit, because it allows me, at least, to be more invested in the individual stories rather than the connections between them.
But taken together, the stories become an even better book. I learned a lot about poaching that I didn’t know I didn’t know, like how completely and utterly awful it is (thanks, elephant’s point of view!) but also how lucrative it is and how it can make perfect sense to become a poacher. Really, at its core, this is a book about people (and elephants) doing what they feel is the best thing to do for themselves, although it doesn’t always work out for the people (and elephants) around them.
Even though there’s a lot going on story-wise, this is still one of those books that makes you want to sit back and let the words just wash over you. James does a great job of setting the scenes and creating an atmosphere that walks the line between reality and myth. Even when one part of my brain was like, look, we don’t have time for this parable you’re telling, there’s an elephant in trouble!, another part was like, shut up, we’ll get there eventually and also this is interesting. I will definitely be seeking out more of her work in the future.
Recommendation: For fans of elephants and multi-perspective stories.