But Tania James skirts that pitfall with aplomb in her novel about the Gravedigger, the name bestowed on an elephant who turns killer, after his mother is butchered by poachers.Further cruelties tip him over the edge into a form of animal madness: after trampling his victims, he covers their bodies with leaves.
The other threads belong to Manu, whose ambition to be chief manager of a bank is derailed when tragedy strikes his family, and Emma Lewis, an American filmmaker documenting elephant behaviour. Manu’s brother, Jayan, is a convicted poacher who finds himself drawn back into the sordid world of elephant hunting by the Gravedigger’s murderous exploits. Emma, too, is on unstable ground. The elephants she is filming interact, she notes, ‘on a plane we could only glimpse indirectly’, but her own relationships with humans are equally confused and complex. None of the characters come away unscathed, though the precise nature of their fates is cleverly concealed until the final few pages.
The Tusk That Did The Damage is a remarkably accomplished novel and covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, largely because of James’ ability to switch registers, from the earthy to the lyrical, with ease.
THE TUSK THAT DID THE DAMAGE by Tania James, Harvill Secker, £12.99 (hb)
This review was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine