Books: A high price for ivory

Rachel Halliburton trumpets the virtue of this unforgettable flight of fancy from a jumbo-sized talent
The White Bone

by Barbara Gowdy

Flamingo, pounds 16.99, 340pp

HUMAN BEINGS normally only see the inside of an elephant's head once they have killed it. Protests have been no use: poachers still reduce these majestic beasts to mountainous corpses, using chainsaws to hack off their faces in the name of the ivory trade. In Barbara Gowdy's novel, such massacres are played out against a text characterised by gentle intelligence, taut poetry and imagination-defying vision.

This narrative is an exploration of the elephant's head without the violation, a journey across its landscape without the intrusion. Gowdy has cut out the parasitic middle-man, and selected the elephants themselves as her storytellers. It says much about the shift in her subject matter that, last time she wrote about a four-legged character with superlative memory skills, the story concerned a woman with two vaginas who exhibited her extra legs at a touring freak-show.

Gowdy is one of the only novelists in Canada who lives on the money she makes from her books, largely due to a readership enthralled by her sympathetic and enlightening portrayal of the "freakish". So it comes as little surprise that this novel is no anthropomorphic romp. Once more she refuses to fit her characters into a mainstream consciousness, forcing readers to rearrange their mental furniture around the elephants' perceptions.

The book is a result of lengthy investigation of elephant habits, and a sustained imaginative response to such observations. It tells the story of several elephant tribes, each with its own cosmology, social codes and sexual politics. This is a very naked novel for Gowdy. Her language is stripped of her normal black humour and grotesquerie; instead, she relies on a stark poetry to make the reader believe in her creations.

The central scene is a massacre, and the remainder charts the elephants' quest for safety across a symbolic landscape of their own making. Gowdy starts with a compelling conceit: that "under that thunderhead of flesh and those huge rolling bones they are memory... When their memories begin to drain,their bodies go into decline, as if from a slow leakage of blood."

With shared memory comes a shared past, with all its connotations of belief-systems and ritual. When Mud, the central character, is born and left for days under her dead mother, who has been bitten by a cobra, a careful description ensues of the other elephants' mourning - trumpeting, defecating, throwing dirt over the corpse.

Ironically, Gowdy's poetry and credibility only desert her when writing the elephants' hymns. Otherwise she creates a mythology which is all the more thought-provoking for its emphasis on the parasitic tendencies of humans, and the havoc they can wreak on an animal's landscape. You finish the novel in the same way you finish her other books: charmed, intoxicated by the language, and very disturbed.