Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 18, 2016

Sensational Snippets: Seeing the Elephant (2016), by Portland Jones

Seeing the Elephant Every now and again, and not often enough, considering how much I read, I come across words on a page that make me yearn to be a writer…

Imagine having the power to evoke a world like this:

My mother had more stories than a famine has rice.  She stitched them to our clothes, stirred them into our rice and tucked them into our beds with us at night.  She told stories to comfort, to feed and to teach us about the corners of a world that might otherwise remain mysterious to a child.  She could weave words into bandages, my mother.  She could speak the coolness of dark green shade and the crumble of cinnamon-coloured loam between your toes.

Words were sweet between my mother’s lips – the names of our ancestors, songs for planting and for harvest, lullabies.  She could find the meaning in bird-calls and cloud shadows.  She knew the names of all the animals and plants in the forest.  She knew which leaves to stew into a tea for fevers, and which ones would help a dying man pass swiftly and without fear into the next world.

When I was a child, death was only an occasional visitor to our village.  After someone in the village died an elder would decide on the exact location of the grave by throwing an egg into the air and digging where it fell. My mother would throw her eggs with particular care – not too close to the well but near enough to the sweeping fruit trees so that the blind tangle of their roots could feat on the body underneath.

From the Prologue, Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones, Margaret River Press, 2016, ISBN 9780994316745.

Such is this author’s command of narrative voice, that this elegiac tone of a Vietnamese translator, now grown old and sick in Australia, intersects with the ruminations and the letters home of a down-to-earth Aussie soldier sent to the Vietnamese Highlands to recruit and train the local hill tribes in 1962.

Seeing the Elephant was shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2014.

You can buy it from Fishpond Seeing the Elephant: A Novel or direct from Margaret River Press, or good bookshops anywhere.


  1. I love the freshness of the allusions and metaphors this author has created


    • Yes, it shows the influence of living in a multicultural society in an entirely natural way. This is the kind of writing there should be more of in Australia, it is the world we live in. Jane Rawson (Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists) and A S Patric (Black Rock White City) are two other up-and-coming authors who aren’t consciously ‘multicultural’, it’s just part of the natural fabric of their writing.


      • I’ll keep an eye out for these two since they are totally new names for me


  2. There are many beautiful passages in this book. I was particularly taken with how this narrator sees the world. Portland managed to make his voice not only unique and original, but beautiful, too. As soon as he starts talking, you can tell he’s not Australian—which I love. I’m so glad Margaret River Press brought this up and coming writer to us.


    • I couldn’t agree more. I am just finishing my review now and fidgeting with it because I don’t think I can do the author justice. There are some books where I just ought to write ‘go buy it and read it’, and this is one of them!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interested in reading this one, thanks for the Sensational Snippet.


    • I’m sure you’ll be impressed too:)


  4. Yesterday, I finished reading Seeing the Elelphant, and agree it is a very impressive read. I thought Portland Jones captured both voices well, and her writing is beautiful. I will suggest it for one of my book club reads.


    • That’s great, Meg, and thanks for the feedback.


  5. […] debut novel Seeing the Elephant, I was really impressed, as you can see in my review  and in the Sensational Snippet that I posted too.  So this year, when I was chatting about something else with Caroline from […]


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