cover image The Tusk That Did the Damage

The Tusk That Did the Damage

Tania James. Knopf, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-385-35412-7

This ambitious but uneven novel by James (Atlas of Unknowns) tells three intersecting stories involving a murderous elephant on the loose in an Indian jungle. Part of the novel follows the elephant, Gravedigger, and does a stunning job evoking an animal’s sensory world, as when he remembers “the bark of soft saplings, the saltlicks, the duckweed, the tang of river water, opening and closing around his feet.” These sections also heartbreakingly capture the elephant’s terror and confusion in the face of human cruelty: the scene of the murder of Gravedigger’s mother, and his subsequent mistreatment as part of a traveling show, are almost unbearable to read. This narrative is a tour de force, and the other sections in the book pale by comparison. The chapters dealing with a love triangle involving two American documentarians and their subject, an Indian elephant veterinarian, seem to be from a lesser moral universe and are ultimately forgettable after the life-or-death stakes of Gravedigger’s sections. The story line about Manu, a would-be poacher, fares better by evoking the crushing economic and social realities of rural life in India, but is diminished by heavy-handed plotting. Having already killed one member of Manu’s family, Gravedigger pounces from the shadows to maim a second in a misguided scene that comes off like grim parody. Still, the Gravedigger sections are so original and moving as to tower over the novel’s less successful elements. (Mar.)