The title of Irma Gold’s debut novel, The Breaking, is as ominous as it sounds. It refers to the systematic and torturous process by which the spirits of elephant calves are broken to the point where they are deemed malleable enough to start work within the tourism industry in whatever capacity, from circus fodder to passenger carriers.
When starry-eyed naif Hannah arrives in Thailand for a holiday, she promptly meets another Australian farang (Caucasian), the more seasoned expat Deven, who’s fluent in the local language and knowledgeable about its customs. Unfortunately, that means she’s also familiar with the widespread exploitation of elephants in the country.
Beguiled by the forceful charm of Deven, Hannah is persuaded to embark on
a range of rehabilitation and rescue missions. The two young women travel all over the land to comfort and care for these beasts of burden, working in food production and distribution and waste-clearing. Their love for these creatures coincides with the growing sexual tension between Hannah and Deven, but the latter’s magnetic pull on the former leads them into risky, fraught territory as idealism abuts conviction.
The Breaking is far from a colour piece or travelogue and yet it remains a visceral account that stimulates all the senses. Cultural sensitivities are observed, alongside the tricky balance of portraying both the beauty and violence of the country. While never condoning the treatment of the animals, Gold makes clear that the poverty-stricken conditions of their owners facilitate and perpetuate the cycle of abuse of their charges. How to offset cruelty and create enduring change in the community is a perennial problem. The Asian elephants, after all, have been used as a resource, as a means of livelihood for their mahouts and owners for years, and ecotourism is a relatively new concept.
Hannah and Deven are well-drawn portraits of young people striving for meaning and belonging in a world that is often beyond their understanding. The narrative moves quickly, yet there are enough pauses for us to stare into the eye of these stricken pachyderms.
The author has written short stories and children’s books, but this is her first full-length fiction, albeit one that’s been interwoven with elements of truth. Gold’s own experiences of volunteering on various rescue missions in Thailand lend the book an imprimatur of authenticity.
MidnightSun Publishing, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 20, 2021 as "Irma Gold, The Breaking".
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