The White Bone is narrated from the perspective of elephants and raises some interesting questions about the limits of authorial imagination. When male authors write female characters (or vice versa) interviewers ask how they could imagine the experiences of the other gender (see interviews with Lawrence Hill, for example). Typically the response has something to do with imagination being the work of authors and why doesn’t the interviewer ask something more relevant to the book itself?
In this case I expect Barbara Gowdy has answered one or two questions about how she imagined the perspective of elephants (I suppose this will be a reoccuring question in the non-human protagonist category?) – but the thing is, I don’t think imagined the perspective of elephants at all. The elephants are made to be people in all the ways people are thought to be unique animals: the creation of art; feelings of love, empathy and loss; laughter; mourning and burial practices. The elephants are also way better than people: ‘rumbling’ – infrasonic messaging is clearly superior to FB and TWTR, and mind talking is high up on the scale of pretty great skills.
I suppose I can’t blame Gowdy: how to imagine the perspective of an elephant except as a human might imagine it? But then I wonder whether the same doesn’t apply for men writing women, or young people writing adults, or healthy writing sick: how do you imagine the perspective of another? Isn’t it that author’s imagine how the experiences, desires, dangers of the other might lead them to think and behave in certain ways? Isn’t this the gift of the author? When then am I so dissatisfied with Gowdy’s presentation of the elephants as humans in their wants, needs and sorrows? Well, precisely because she imagines the elephants as humans as elephants. Elephant people.
P. told me I would read this book and sob. And I admit to thinking about the characters in non-reading time (a mark of an engaging narrative, I think), but I didn’t feel overly sad with the conclusion of the book (indeed, the very end is cloying and unrealistic). Instead I felt confused that such a brilliant premise – how better to evoke concern and empathy for elephants endangered by poaching and environmental disruption than to have the elephants tell the story? – failed so entirely in capturing my compassion. I ended the book feeling frustrated with all of the living elephants and (this is the truly remarkable thing, as someone obsessed with character) near-indifferent to the deaths of the elephants I’m meant to care most about.
My failing perhaps? My inability to let go of human concerns and wander with the elephants? Or the more likely case, that the elephants-as-people-as-elephants made me too frustrated to care about the elephants-as-characters.