THE TUSK THAT DID THE DAMAGE, by Tania James. Alfred A. Knopf, 225 pp., $24.95.
Tania James' new novel returns her readers to India, telling the intriguing, tightly plotted story of a rampaging elephant. She delivers it in three braided perspectives, narrated by the brother of a rural ivory poacher, an American filmmaker and the elephant himself.
The author is after bigger game than Sara Gruen's cloying "Water for Elephants," a bestseller in 2007. James' pachyderm is no lemonade-swilling sweetheart, but a killer known variously as the Gravedigger, the Jackfruit Freak and the great Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan. "In his earliest days, his name was a sound only his kin could make in the hollows of their throats, and somewhere in his head, fathoms deep, he kept it close."
Faster than you can say Bambi, James kills off her elephant's mother. The scene is brief, but brutal; readers who can't stomach cruelty of this ilk beware. For those who continue, the spell is cast, and the author's sympathies spread evenly among all her narrators. This is particularly welcome in the case of narrator Manu Shivaram, a skinny, observant adolescent whose rough older brother, a poacher, decided at 14 that "the forest was the only school worth attending."
James' debut novel, "Atlas of the Unknowns," twined through the lives of two modern Indian sisters. This time the writer strings tension between and around the brothers, Manu and Jayan, whose cascade of bad luck strains credulity.
Yet again, James crafts thrilling sentences -- "the moon was a dead man's eye, rolled back and white" or "the car door opened, and out came a fat black shoe, mannish if not for the mud-spattered sari hem that fell over it." The writer's moral complexity is nicely complemented by her sense of humor. The aforementioned hem belongs to the first Indian woman park ranger -- tough, but not above politics. She sets off a new risk-benefit calculus among those who exploit the forest and its creatures.
"The Tusk that Did the Damage" is a phrase from a fable that lands mid-book. Around it are crammed circuses, weddings, fistfights, temple feasts, gunshots, a love triangle, a prison visit, an imperiled pregnancy and a curse. It's a bit much. The love triangle, involving the fetching documentary-maker Emma Lewis, seems particularly ho-hum next to the urgency of the Gravedigger's story. His chapters are the briefest, and the most memorable.
Stories with animal points-of-view are as old as Ovid and as cherished as "White Fang." If James' novel whets your appetite, pick up "Giraffe" by J.M. Ledgard. It sets a mesmerizing standard that James may yet reach.