The triple stranded novel opens on a baby elephant who is still dependent on his mother. When poachers track the elephant herd and kill one of the two older males for his tusks, the baby's mother is also killed and her tail, the tail that the baby held onto while walking, the tail that the baby knew as a connection to his mother, is cut off to be sold as a totem or talisman. The tiny elephant, traumatized by the loss of his mother, is subsequently raised by humans, trained, and used in ceremonies. Eventually breaking free of his chains and escaping his captors, the few who understood him as well as those who abused him, he becomes the feared elephant known as the Gravedigger, randomly killing people but then burying them reverently.
Manu is a young man in Southern India living close to poverty on the edge of the Kanavar Wildlife Park. He is the son of a farmer, expected to excel in school and be more than his father, who struggled to scrape a living from their land. His cousin died when the hut he was staying in to guard the fields from the elephants who would devastate the crops was trampled by the famous and feared Gravedigger. Manu feels incredibly guilty over his cousin's death because he should have been in the hut too, sharing the watch. Generally a responsible young man, Manu regrets what he sees as his failure and so he takes his mother's request to watch out for his older brother Jayan very seriously after she discovers that Jayan is involved in unsavory business. That business turns out to be poaching and Manu will become a reluctant participant in it as well as he tries to do right by his brother.
Emma is a documentary filmmaker who, with her best friend and fellow filmmaker, Teddy, has come to India to try and make her name creating a film about Dr. Ravi Varma, an elephant and wildlife veterinarian. As Emma and Teddy take footage of orphan elephants being raised at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and of Ravi at work, Emma finds herself developing a crush on Ravi while Teddy is interested in Emma, both emotional situations risking the integrity and objectivity of the film with Emma's being the greater risk.
Emma and Manu tell their strands of the story in first person while the chapters centered on the Gravedigger are in third person limited omniscient. The different plot lines seem only marginally connected to start but they eventually twine themselves together in a tightly written and focused tale. This is not a story that demonizes, offering a balanced approach to the terrible problem of the lucrative ivory trade and to the horrific lives that elephants in captivity lead. The reader feels empathy for both the mentally scarred Gravedigger and for the poor and loyal Manu. The anthropomorphizing of the Gravedigger allows the reader to see firsthand the effect of poaching and a life in captivity on an elephant. Manu's chapters offer insight into the dire financial considerations behind poaching, at least at a low level, and the suffering that the local people endure when the elephants are driven out of their traditional habitat and forced to forage through the scant crops meant to sustain the villagers. Emma's fervent beliefs about conservation and the hero worship of those who work in the field come from the perspective of a complete outsider who isn't aware of the conflict between man and nature; she's a person who sees things entirely in black and white. But her relationship with Ravi allows her access to the surprising and sometimes morally suspect trade-offs that come in real life, adding yet another dimension to the tale.
The novel is a short one but powerful for all that. The chapters rotating between the three different narrations allow the plot to start slowly and build to a frantic crescendo. The issue of conservation is far more complicated than it seems on the surface, a fact that James has captured beautifully here. Imbuing the Gravedigger with human-like emotions and motivations allows her to suppose similar feelings of loyalty and betrayal in both humans and mammal, tugging at the readers' heartstrings. As the tension rises, the stories of the three main characters come together resulting in an inevitable confrontation. There can be no hopeful conclusion to the tale, not while corruption and conservation are bedfellows and not while man and beast fight for their own survival at the expense of the other. But James' novel can document the carnage and mourn the casualties of the ongoing battle. This is a novel that will make the reader think long after the last page is turned.
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Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.