Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2021

The Breaking, by Irma Gold

This debut novel came my way because Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes and Sue from Whispering Gums had both reviewed it, and I wanted to see for myself how it handled the issues it raises.  This is the blurb:

Hannah Bird has just arrived in Thailand. Disoriented and out of her depth, she meets Deven, a fierce and gutsy Australian expat who sweeps her into thrilling adventures rescuing elephants.

As they head deeper and deeper into the fraught world of elephant tourism, their lives become tangled in ways Hannah never imagined. But how far will they go to save a life?

Hannah is about to make a critical decision from which there will be no turning back, with shattering consequences.

The Breaking piqued my interest not because I am sentimental about elephants but because it explores the ugly side of mass tourism and the role of outsiders in ‘righting wrongs’.   Hannah is the stereotypical naïve young tourist, escaping the minor troubles of a comfortable life by visiting an ‘exotic’ culture on a shoestring.  As fellow Australian Deven in exasperation soon makes clear, Hannah has not bothered to find out anything about the country she is visiting.  Deven, who has issues of her own, clearly enjoys being the possessor of knowledge about Thailand, and takes the clueless Hannah under her wing, introducing her to the culture of street life and teaching her scraps of Thai.  (Later on, Deven volunteers as a teacher in a village school so teaching must be in her blood.)

But Deven also introduces Hannah to the Worthy Cause, i.e. the rescue of elephants which these days are used less as workhorses and more to entertain the ‘bucket list’ type of tourist with circus performances, tricks and rides.  Deven is passionate about the rescue of these animals which suffer greatly throughout their very long lives, and as the novel reveals in graphic detail, the elephant’s submission to their mahout is achieved through the process of phajaan i.e. breaking its spirit with extreme cruelty when it is very young.  (Though you can infer some of what goes on from the Equipment section, none of this is alluded to in the bland article about mahouts at Wikipedia which has been edited significantly to remove references to phajaan, see Verification in the Talk section).

With sexual attraction emerging between Hannah and Deven, the pair join an elephant rescue operation, putting in long hours of back-breaking, dirty labour.  They clean the elephants, and they clean up after them; they feed them and they spend hours preparing their food.  They tend their wounds and they rejoice when elephants take their first tentative unchained steps. They get to know and love individual elephants and they find that the work they are doing is very satisfying.  But that is not enough for Deven.  She knows, (as everyone else involved in these projects in Asia and Africa does), that the problem of elephant exploitation and cruelty is systemic and that they are making a difference only to a small number of individual animals.

(Though the novel is not explicit about this, the depiction of the ‘yobbo’ Aussie tourist shows that activism also needs to tackle the pressure exerted by this type of tourist.  That needs to be done not in Thailand but in the source countries of the tourists who arrive expecting tricks and rides.  Making ethical tourism the only kind of acceptable tourism is a project for wealthy western countries.)

Big, the Thai in charge of the rescue project explains that changing the culture and way of life in Thailand is a slow process, and this is where a careful shift in characterisation occurs.  Deven has been the leader: strong, intelligent, decisive, street-wise and morally persuasive.  Her interactions with Thais show a respect for Thai culture.  She speaks enough of the language to get by in everyday situations; she dresses respectfully; she eats what they do; and she derides Hannah’s Western-tourist expectations about the kind of accommodation they are given. But Deven is also impulsive and she sees things in black-and-white; as right or wrong.  Hannah has been a clueless follower: getting lost; getting ‘ripped off’ in bargaining; needing an interpreter; naïve about the way elephants are trained.  However, it is Hannah who sees the nuances that pass Deven by: that there are families with hungry children who are dependent on the income the elephants provide and that well-meaning outsiders taking the moral high ground can do more harm than good.  Over the course of the novel we see Hannah emerge from star-struck follower happy to go along with things without argument, to making tentative steps towards voicing her dissenting opinions, and finally to taking charge when the crisis occurs.

It took longer to read this book than I expected because some of the animal cruelty scenes left me wanting a break from the reading, but overall I admire this author for bringing these issues to attention in a nuanced way.  The author has ‘skin in the game’: she has worked on rescue projects in Thailand and in the Afterword she suggests rescue projects which would welcome financial support.  But the novel as a whole represents the complexity of activist involvement in these projects, and the novel itself is a powerful way of promoting ethical tourism.

Thanks to Sue and Theresa for bringing it to my attention.

Author: Irma Gold
Title: The Breaking
Cover design: Kim Lock
Publisher: Midnight Sun, 2021
ISBN: 9781925227819, pbk., 265 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. With a bit of luck climate change will make air travel and therefore tourism more expensive, reducing the pressure on locals to ‘perform’. And I know, also reducing their incomes, but economies in every country are going to have to adjust to being more local and less “global”.

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    • Covid has shown us the impact of reducing tourism among our Pacific neighbours who are wholly dependent on it. We don’t hear much about it in our navel-gazing media, but for some of them ‘being more local’ means going back to subsistence living.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed it too Lisa. You have written it up well.

    You are right that the animal cruelty scenes are distressing but they are essential, aren’t they, to make clear just how these elephants are treated, things tourists have no idea about and wouldn’t expect to be the case. I like how Irma Gold also conveys moral complexity in terms of Thai people’s living.

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    • Thank you. I liked the character development that emerged as the stakes got higher.
      In your review you talked about how the author’s passions sometimes drive the writing and I found myself wondering about what she might write next now that she’s covered this terrain…

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      • Yes, I did too, particularly for Hannah.

        Re her next book, I don’t know. Elephants are an obvious passion of hers but I think there could be an underlying theme that might drive her writing so I’m intrigued to see what she does next. She has a picture book just out which I must get.

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        • Yes, it’s always interesting to see what happens with a second novel. Many first novels are written to get something off the author’s chest and that’s it. They’ve got it out of their system. But then there are others who’ve used their passion but also have other strings to the bow. I’m hoping this author is one of those because I like her outward-looking gaze and her interest in issues of importance.

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          • She has a published short story collection which shows some broad interests so I think you’re on a good bet here! Also, this is not one of those autobiographical novels, is it, which I suspect some authors find it hard to move on from. Though not all of course. Think Malouf and Johnno!

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            • If she has a passion for righting wrongs, there’s endless material!

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I would struggle with this one because of the animal cruelty, which I know is necessary to get the point across. But I’m glad someone is writing about issues like this – there is so much exploitation involved in tourism that it needs to be addressed.

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    • It’s the whole bucket list thing that exasperates me. The whole point of going somewhere is to tick it off a list. This is foolish and annoying for a whole lot of reasons, but most of all IMO for the person who has such shallow values and such an ignorant view of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it incomprehensible what people will do when they are on holiday – petting tigers, diving with sharks, watching animals perform tricks or haul carriages in blistering temperatures, to name just a few. It sickens me every time I see it happening. I understand that the people involved are trying to make money, often just to survive; it’s not them I blame but the idiots who lose all sense of shame when they visit another country.

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    • Here, it’s getting up close and personal with crocodiles.
      Sometimes with results that are well-deserved…

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  5. I’m glad you appreciated it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I know I mentioned a couple of my favourite elephant stories on WG’s review of this one, including Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone (written from the elephants’ perspective, which sounds like it would be terrible, but it’s not!) and Kim Echlin’s Elephant Winter (more of a mother-daughter story but wintering in an “safari gamepark” near Toronto, yes, there is such a thing *sigh*). Glad to read your thoughts about it!

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