September 14 1998


September 14 1998

Elephantine fantasies


Barbara Gowdy triumphs with a pachyderm saga


Barbara Gowdy concedes that she is a stickler for punctuality. The willowy blond novelist shows up for lunch at a downtown Toronto restaurant precisely at the agreed-upon hour—and begins talking about the fateful occasion, five years ago, when she actually chose to be late for an appointment. It seems that while hurrying to leave her apartment, she was distracted by a National Geographic Society television documentary about elephants. Long fascinated by the workings of the animal mind, Gowdy sat enthralled at footage of a group of African pachyderms as they discovered the skeleton of one of their former matriarchs. They tenderly fondled the bones with their trunks, apparently in recognition. Meanwhile, the show’s narrator, zoologist Cynthia Moss, explained that the great animals will often bury the bones of their own dead. Or they will turn and ceremoniously pass a hind leg over the remains, as if carrying out a religious rite. Gowdy was electrified. “I found shivers going up and down my back,” she recalls. “It seems to me that if you’re conscious of death, then you’re conscious of life. And whatever consciousness is—awareness, sadness, dreaminess or speculative thought—the elephants had it.”

That was the seed of The White Bone (HarperFlamingoCanada, $28), Gowdy’s daring new novel about African elephants, which tells its story from the animals’ point of view. Part vision-quest, part family tragi-comedy, The White Bone follows a number of the beasts as they trek through a landscape made treacherous by drought and the predations of ivory hunters. Gowdy acknowledges that the book is a departure from her usual work—novels and short stories about marginal, even freakish women and their neurotic families—and she admits this worries her. “What people have previously noted as my strengths, like my black humor, aren’t so much in evidence here,” she says, dabbing at her vegetarian risotto. She is perhaps being overly apprehensive. Her friend, novelist Susan Swan, thinks that The White Bone is “a natural evolution from her earlier work. It shows the same interest in consciousness within unusual physical form. Think of her story of the four-legged woman in We So Seldom Look on Love. And her subversive humor is evident too, though in a quieter way.” Still, Gowdy’s concern about her novel’s reception is understandable. The 48-year-old is one of the few fiction writers in the country who makes a living from her work. The international success of her earlier books, including the 1995 novel Mister

Sandman (nominated for both a Governor General’s and a Giller award) and her 1992 short-story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love (whose famous title piece, which inspired the 1996 Canadian film Kissed, featured a young woman who made love to corpses), have enabled her to buy a Victorian house in Toronto’s Cabbagetown, and to fly off on the occasional holiday with her companion, writer Christopher Dewdney. So far, the prospects for The White Bone look exceptionally good. Prepublication sales to bookstores are soaring, and foreign rights in Britain, the United States and Germany have been sold for six figures. Sara Bershtel, Gowdy’s American editor at Metropolitan Holt, believes the writer “has caught the wave of intense interest in things like the environment and the discovery of consciousness in animals.” Adds Bershtel, whose company has chosen the novel to head its fiction list next spring: “Her books have always had extraordinary reviews here, but The White Bone is the kind of book people can fall in love with. We’re expecting it to do extremely well.”

The White Bone may be gathering momentum, but its beginnings were tentative. Gowdy recalls that even after she saw the National Geographic documentary and had read everything she could find about elephants, she was wary of starting the project. “To write about elephants from their own viewpoint seemed outlandish, another Barbara Gowdy outlandish thing,” she says. As has so often been the case, it was Dewdney—her companion since the end of her second marriage nine years ago— who encouraged her to go ahead. “Chris told me, A. quest book about elephants in peril is, in a sense, classical and conservative. And besides, why would you care? Just do what moves you, not what might please your publisher.’ ”

Gowdy set to work, but soon realized she needed to observe elephants in the wild. Enter Gowdy’s older sister,

Beth Kirkwood, who runs a Toronto-based junior mining exploration company. When Kirkwood suggested that Gowdy accompany her and her two sons,

Chris and Rob, on a 1996 business trip to Africa, with a lengthy detour to Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve,

Gowdy leapt at the chance. They arrived during the wildebeest migration, and so were able to observe not only the usual elephants, cheetahs and gazelles, but tens of thousands of wildebeests moving slowly through the archaic African sunlight. Says Gowdy: “I got that sense of mystery and awe you get when you hear a great piece of music or enter a cathedral.”

Other encounters were more discomfiting. Gowdy recalls one young bull elephant that kept threatening to charge their jeep. The hired driver wanted to speed away, but Gowdy insisted they stay put. She had noticed that the elephant had his trunk up—a sign, gleaned from her extensive reading, that he was making only a mock charge. Today, Gowdy is appalled at her own boldness. “I mean, the driver had lived there all his life,” she says. ‘What did I know?” Fortunately, the elephant merely snorted and kicked the dirt before wandering off.

Gowdy proceeded with her book, but with trepidation. “I wrote it feeling humble and undeserving and knowing it was going to be imperfect. Imagining the lives of these creatures, I might be completely wrong on all counts. And I thought, T have to make the attempt not as an act of science or even as literature, but as an act of love.’ ”

There may be something of Gowdy’s artistic credo here, for it has always been love, finally, that illuminates the complex humanity of her often deformed and isolated characters, like the autistic dwarf who is the throbbing nucleus of the family in Mister Sandman. The strangeness of such figures has led to considerable speculation about Gowdy’s own background. But she insists that her upbringing among the carports and burnt lawns in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills was decidedly ordinary. Her mother, Claire, stayed home to raise Gowdy

and her three siblings, while her father, Robert, prospered as a producer of trade shows. However, Gowdy relates a recurring childhood nightmare that hints at underlying tensions: “In the dream, I had to count all the grains of sand on the beach, or my family would die. I’d get about four thousand grains in my bucket, then someone would kick it over, and I’d have to start all over again.”

The dream might be taken as a harbinger of Gowdy’s long, often frustrating search to find her true calling. After winning a best actor award at the Dominion Drama Festival when she was 15, she went on to enrol in theatre arts at Toronto’s York University. But the would-be actress dropped out after only a year, discouraged by her failure to get into the performance section of the program. At 22, she went to work for a securities firm. Her aim was to earn lots of money, buy a good piano, and study in her spare time to become a concert pianist She practised ferociously for several years and then, at 32, abruptly stopped. “When I realized the enormous gap between my talent and my ambition, it was pretty awful,” she says, adding, “Unless I played like Anton Kuerti I didn’t want to play at all.” She claims not to have touched a piano since. Gowdy went on to work as an editor for the small publishing company of Lester and Orpen Cater Lester and Orpen Dennys). When she found herself impetuously rewriting other people’s manuscripts, she thought she might try something of her own. Her first novel, Through the Green Valley, was a formulaic historical romance she now regards as a false start: it got some good reviews and promptly sank from sight. Then, she wrote a short story, ‘Disneyland,” inspired by her childhood memories of a Don Mills family who had built a fallout shelter in their backyard. Margaret Atwood picked the darkly humorous tale for inclusion in the 1989 compendium The Best American Stories. That same year, it became the nucleus for Gowdy’s popular second novel, Falling Angels. Gowdy had found her voice, and her career.

In The White Bone, Gowdy has written a new kind of book. Superficially, it is reminiscent of many children’s novels (or such simplistic adult fare as Watership Down), with its talking animals and their quest for a place where they can be safe from human beings. But what makes the book so powerful and original for adults is the soulful, intelligent complexity of the elephants’ thoughts and feelings. Outwardly, they do nothing that real pachyderms would not do: Gowdy has researched her creatures well, and all their mighty defecating, mating, eating, battling and trumpeting have the ring of authenticity. But inwardly—where Gowdy’s imagination takes over—they are equally convincing as they experience the griefs and joys of elephant life. A few of their number are visionaries and can foresee their own tragic slaughter, their tusks hacked away by the marauding humans who shoot at them from jeeps and helicopters. According to the cosmology Gowdy has created for the elephants, this is a particularly ignominious end: the great beasts believe that, without their tusks, they cannot rise after death to become stars in the night sky.

No doubt there will be those who say that Gowdy is anthropomorphizing outrageously, but such criticisms would miss the point. In The White Bone Gowdy has imaginatively demonstrated that animals can have as rich and complicated an inner life as human beings. It may not take exactly the form Gowdy has envisaged—after all, elephants do not think or speak in English—but she has surely caught something of its complicated texture. Gowdy herself says she wants to bring her readers to a crucial and sympathetic awareness, at a time when so many animals are threatened with extinction. “I agree with D. H. Lawrence that the novel has the power to change lives,” she declares. “Even a bad novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, brought about the end of slavery. I hope that people are moved by The White Bone in a way they haven’t been moved before.” □