A white elephant was historically bestowed as a burden which had the outward appearance of a gift; a courtier charged with its care and upkeep would have a beautiful creature to display, but the weight of the responsibility undeniable.
In Catherine Cooper's debut novel, the question of gifts and burdens permeates the lives of its characters.
At the heart of the novel are a married couple, Ann and Richard, and their child, Tor; each of these characters is presented in alternating close-third-person narratives.
Perspective is everything: just as an elephant can be a gift or a burden, a single event can be a blessing or a curse, a single person provoking inspiration or desperation.
As the novel progresses, perspectives shift; what appeared to be an act of giving up in despair becomes an act of escape in triumph, what seemed a scientific certainty becomes an element of faith.
Richard has long wanted to practice medicine in Africa, and his desire to influence others raises questions of culture and faith, tradition and belief. Seeking to impose dramatic changes on the residents of a Sierra Leone community immediately provokes questions of power and control, vulnerability and neediness.
Ironically, the visitors who are apparently motivated by a desire to provide aid, are tremendously needy indiviuals.
This is to be expected from Tor's character, as a young child, but his parents relentlessly work to satisfy their own needs, under the guise of altruism, and leave behind a trail of devastation. In turn, Tor learns from these examples, and he, too, ranks personal convenience above compassion.
But whether the characters inhabit familiar or new territory, one theme echoes throughout the work: size does not equate with power. In the river of change, which these characters seek to cross, it's young Tor who leaves the boldest rift in his wake.
"Tor kept hacking at the [trunk of the] mango tree, and when he was worn out, he went down to the river’s edge and sat by himself. He wondered what was wrong with him. He didn’t mean to do those things. He didn’t want to hurt Aminata. He just wanted to go home. How much time had he spent listening to his mother talk about the mould and Richard, and now that she seemed to be getting better, he felt like he was losing her."
The small - from another perspective, the insignificant - can wield tremendous power.
Ann is decimated by the mould which flourishes in the walls of the house they inhabit. Despite her ongoing costly and exhaustive contracts for renovation, these tiny organisms thrive in an environment which drains and exhausts (even nauseates) Ann.
From spores to insects to rats, small creatures wreck considerable devastation. They also serve as convenient targets for larger people to blame, as the impetus for their unhappiness and dissatisfaction. And, as such, their movements, on the periphery of significant relationships, have a peculiar resonance with the characters.
"The most unforgivable example of this was when he [Jusuf, who worked in the house] scraped the mould off the walls, releasing the spores that now lived in her lungs and consumed her thoughts. But this was only one of many examples of his incompetence. A few days earlier she’d caught him feeding sugar water to the ants in the kitchen. When she’d confronted him, he’d said, ‘If we give them what they want, they will go away.’"
The breakdown of a body (and, as perspectives shift, its endurance) is considered throughout the work, and physical vulnerabilities contribute to (and, other times, erupt from) spiritual and intellectual breakdowns.
"He [Richard] watched for a while as the insect flapped its wings in wild futility, and when it finally stopped, he poked at it with a pencil to start it up again, reasoning that the best thing was for it to wear itself out quickly."
This kind of detail is more important to White Elephant than setting, although one might expect otherwise in a novel which touches upon two regions as striking as Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
Perhaps this is a deliberate decision not to engage with traditional CanLit's emphasis on descriptions of the natural world, or perhaps it is a reflection of the characters' perspectives: it could be argued that none of the three - neither Richard, nor Ann nor Tor - truly inhabits Sierra Leone.
It could also be argued that none of these characters truly inhabits their own self. They live at a distance from themselves, literally and figuratively.
"Dot told the priest that their mother wasn’t herself, but Ann believed that her mother had never been herself before then, and that brief breach in the seemingly impenetrable wall that had always stood between them helped Ann to let go of years of bitterness and pain."
As such, letters are used to bridge gaps, from 'home' and 'away'. Throughout the novel, this is used effectively, particularly to capture whether a threat perceived by a character is realistic (or inflated).
The letters in the epilogue, however, seem to be included to offer an echo of something-like-closure (you can imagine, with three damaged and struggling characters, that there isn't any true closure awaiting a reader of such a story - no spoiler, right?).
They provide a voice to characters who only exist at a distance for both readers and characters, but these are characters who have not been afforded an independent voice in the narrative so far; this does serve as a reminder that beyond the preoccupations of three family members, many other lives unspool (for better or worse), but to conclude the story in such a manner seems a concession to convention.
Readers who have endured more than 300 pages in the company of Ann and Richard and Tor, smothered by their insular and angsty perspectives, could have accepted nothing-even-remotely-like-closure on the final pages.
Although being in close quarters with these characters is uncomfortable, White Elephant is not without its lighter moments. There are many scenes in which the overwhelming emotion is anger or fear, in which tension is palpable, but readers can catch a glimpse of a comic element, as the behaviour of the characters approaches a ridiculous level of self-absorption.
It's particularly amusing, for instance, to have Richard lament the fact that Ann has left his book out in the rain, so that "he would have to wait until he got back to Canada to find out what had become of the main character, although it had seemed obvious for some time that he was planning to off himself, a conclusion Richard had started to look forward to as the man became increasingly whiny and fanatical".
None of the characters in White Elephant would define themselves as whiny or fanatical, but any one of them exhibits characteristics which could be interpreted that way, depending on one's perspective.
Ultimately Catherine Cooper's novel reminds readers that one person's burdensome elephant is another person's beloved companion. Ann and Richard and Tor feel their lives pulling downwards at every joint. They cannot bear the weight of their own selves, even though they desperately want to slough them off.
This review originally appeared on BuriedInPrint.