I hadn’t heard of Tania James’ The Tusk That Did the Damage before I saw it featured on a couple of Instagram accounts which I follow, with the announcement that it had been shortlisted for the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize. Whilst this is not a prize which I necessarily read my way around (I am more of a fan of the used-to-be-Orange-and-is-now-Baileys Prize), my interest in the book was piqued enough for me to look further into the novel. When I had read the blurb and discovered that my library had a brand new copy, I requested it immediately.
The Tusk That Did the Damage is set in southern India, a location in which James has interestingly merged East and West. In it, she demonstrates how necessary conservation is, and the horrors which we are doing to our world, as well as the horrors of financial exploitation of creatures and natural habitats. We follow three stories; that of The Gravedigger, an angry elephant who wreaks havoc, a young man named Manu whose brother Jayan is in the elephant poaching ‘trade’, and an American graduate named Emma, who has travelled to the region in order to make a film in a wildlife reserve with her friend Teddy. These stories are separate from one another on the whole, but all take the elephant as their central focus, and sit wonderfully together in consequence. I knew, from the book’s very beginning, that I hadn’t read a novel like this in a long time, and was immediately captivated by its originality.
The Tusk That Did the Damage opens with a particularly brutal scene, in which the mother of a young elephant is shot before his eyes. This portion is told from the elephant’s perspective; whilst not an ‘I’ narrative, he is the sole focus, which makes it all the harder to read. For James, no holds are barred in her evocation of the situation:
‘A blast split the silence. The Gravedigger staggered, caught in a carousel of legs and screaming. The man in the tree was pointing a long-snouted gun. Another blast… The Gravedigger whirled in search of his mother, and when at last he caught her scent, he found her roaring in the face of the gunman who aimed into her mouth and shot.’
The use of different narrative styles and perspectives was put to good use here. I was immediately invested in the story, in which backdrops have been realistically evoked, and characters come to life. The real stars of the novel though, are the elephants; they are described in the most human manner:
‘During the moment of mother-calf reunion, Teddy hadn’t fiddled with the zoom, had let the action unfold, giving wide berth to these twining trunks, whose ministrations seemed to suggest comfort and tenderness and yet seemed somehow private, primal, on a plane of communication we could glimpse only directly.’
Focus is given to tiny details which would be so easy to miss; the ‘powdery smell’ of a parakeet, a mouth as a ‘hollow of astonishment’, and a range of mountains sitting ‘gaunt and blue’. The relationships which James presents, both between humans and animals, as well as the links between the two, have been examined with a fine tooth comb. There is a strength in the conversations too:
‘Ravi leaned against the door. “An elephant killed someone,” he said. In Sitamala, near to my mother’s place.”
“What? That’s terrible.”
He nodded, absorbed in thought. There was the distant, drifting silence again, the indecipherable knit of his brow.
“Did you know the person?”
He was speechless so long I thought he hadn’t heard me. “I know the elephant,” he said finally. “Everyone does.”
The Tusk That Did the Damage is a serious book, but boy, is it compelling. The cultural details and local language used help to build a stronger sense of place, and show how informed James is about the place and issues she is writing about. It is not simply a good read; it is an important novel, which demonstrates just how fragile the world really is. Perhaps Jonathan Safran Foer sums it up the best, when he calls it ‘a compulsively readable, devastating novel’. I heartily look forward to what she will come up with next.