Art by Elizabeth Uyehara

THE WHITE BONE | By BARBARA GOWDY | Metropolitan Books | 330 pages | $23 hardcover

Barbara Gowdy’s last novel, Mister Sandman, was the remarkable, and remarkably funny, tale of an urban, Watergate-era family struggling with its internal differences — gay parents, a brain-damaged daughter who turns out to be a musical genius, a daughter who won’t stop eating. Like Mister Sandman, Gowdy’s new book, The White Bone, focuses on an oppressed group and emphasizes the corrupt nature of humankind and the importance of love, loyalty and family ties. It has its humorous moments, too. But there the similarities end. For this talented Canadian writer has, in her fourth novel, re-created the world from an elephant’s perspective. Set in Africa, in the middle of a terrible drought and one of the worst periods of ivory poaching, The White Bone combines scrupulous research with fictional license to help the reader understand from the inside what it means to be an animal under attack by a ruthless, mercenary enemy.

In the hands of a lesser writer, or a more sentimental one, this could be awful. After all, Gowdy has the elephants talking to one another, singing silly little songs to commemorate important occasions, weeping over losses, even pondering philosophical concepts about time, memory and identity. Indeed, the elephants are all too human, from the wistful orphan Mud, a perennial outsider, to the aptly named She Screams, who’s such a whiner that the reader winces, even while laughing, at every ludicrously self-involved outburst.

What helps the reader jump across a vast chasm of disbelief — and prevents these creatures from simply being versions of ourselves in animal clothing — is Gowdy’s delicate juggling of three elements: the authentic detail of elephant life, the beauty of the language, and a powerful narrative that features a graphically described slaughter and the surviving elephants’ search for a special white bone that will point them to “The Safe Place,” a game preserve run by altruistic humans.

There is an immense amount of detail (sometimes too much) about the elephants’ lives. The reader learns about their eating habits, their daily rituals of bathing alternately in water and dirt, their seasons of sexual heat and their funeral ceremonies — they fondle the bones, cover them with dirt, and wave a hind leg over the corpse as if bidding the soul farewell. Weaving fantasy into this mass of information — yet never quite going beyond what’s plausible, since she works within the framework of the animals’ natures — Gowdy persuades the reader to take the extra step of accepting that she can see into animal minds.

But perhaps the most important brick in this well-made literary wall is Gowdy’s language, which is classically understated, yet at times as voluptuous and concentrated as poetry. Some of the most imaginative passages combine physical detail with abstract musings, the elephants’ pragmatism with their spirituality. Date Bed, a wounded elephant separated from the herd, trying to figure out how to extract information from some flies as to the whereabouts of the nearest water, observes that the flies have “wings like slices of blue light. Green gibbous eyes. How nervous they are! They seem to be at their wits’ end, maddened by the loss of some necessity they hope to find in her dung.”

It’s a mark of Gowdy’s growing power as a writer that, even as she raises her familiar literary pennant in defiance of the forces of darkness on a very different battlefield, she moves the reader afresh. Like all Gowdy’s work, The White Bone has the capacity to arouse not only outrage at human cruelty, but also wonder at the revolutionary power of language to up-end preconceptions.

“Animals were always one of my obsessions,” says Barbara Gowdy in a phone interview from her downtown Toronto house, which she shares with a “very feral” gray-and-white cat, Marni, whom she adopted from the Humane Society. Clearly, empathy for the underdog (or cat or elephant) is part of what drew Gowdy to write about elephants, as she agonizes about continued illegal ivory poaching, despite a decade-old ban. “I always remind people that when elephants are killed for their tusks, it’s not for some life-saving remedy — it’s for trinkets,” says the 48-year-old writer. But it was learning of elephants’ intelligence that really started the novel germinating. She approached The White Bone differently from her other books. “Everything I brought to bear in Mister Sandman I had to abandon. This is a more tragic story — a bigger canvas, bigger animals. I needed longer sentences. I needed more lyricism than I often feel comfortable with — usually, I think literary devices alter the truth — so I had to alter my voice.”

Having read books by animal behaviorists that ascribed only base motives to animals, often quite speculatively, Gowdy decided to “invest the elephants with very high intentions.” Nevertheless, she was determined to be as accurate as possible, and she especially wanted to avoid “illuminating human behavior through the view of an animal” in the manner of books like Watership Down and Animal Farm. So she read widely, talked to experts, and went to the Masai Mara, a huge game park in Kenya, to observe elephants first-hand. Her graphic descriptions of slaughter come from Louise Charlton, a friend and animal-rights activist, who witnessed a “cull” (as the killings are called) in South Africa: “She saw the men jump on hysterical baby elephants and ride them, clearly taking a little too much delight in the hunt.”

“Everything the elephants do in my book is not from me, but everything the elephants think is from me,” Gowdy explains. Yet even her invention of having the elephants converse isn’t so far-fetched, since elephants make sounds that experts call “vocalizations.” “When one elephant vocalizes to a whole herd, sometimes only one attends to that call and comes over,” she says. “And so it seems as if the first elephant has said, ‘Hey Joan,’ or ‘Hey Tom.’”

Though Gowdy tried to avoid anthropomorphizing elephants, in some ways they do resemble humans: They have a long childhood and adolescence, have complicated emotions — even cry. And yes, elephants never forget. One expert told her that “the babies who witnessed their mothers being slaughtered wake up screaming the rest of their lives. They are burdened with perfect memories.”

Barbara Gowdy will read from The White Bone at Dutton’s Brentwood, on Tuesday, May 11, at 7 p.m.

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