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Touching on the travails of birth and death among elephants (and humans), Echlin offers a tender, mesmerizing account of the last stages in a mother and daughter’s relationship. Called back from Zimbabwe, where she—d been studying cave paintings, Sophie returns to her native Ontario to aid her mother, terminally ill with cancer. The family home, bordering on a small safari-zoo, provides Sophie with fine views of elephants making their daily march from the barn into the snowy fields beyond—and not a bad view, either, of their male keeper, Jo Mann. She and Jo fall rather quickly into bed and then into an easy relationship. As part of the tale, Echlin surrenders an inventive “Elephant-English dictionary,” a tome Sophie is creating based on her infrasound audio recordings and bits of which, highly idiosyncratic and anecdotal, are interspersed throughout the story (a particular elephantine expression of longing, for example, reminds Sophie of the last lines of an Ezra Pound poem). Sadly enough, her growing fascination with the elephants, and her pregnancy by Jo, coincide with her mother’s decline; once a vital person, as well as an artist, the dying woman now simply withdraws into the seclusion of her room. Amid their sometimes disquieting, sometimes soothing routine, Sophie listens to her mother reminisce about her long-ago life in Paris. Then the dark presence of Alecto intervenes: an elephant researcher, he won his reputation by shooting elephants in the wild for the autopsy opportunities to be gained. The climax—a heady convergence of Sophie’s mother’s death, an attempted rape, and an elephant charging—ends up leaving Sophie alone at last with the elephants and her new daughter, settled and purposeful. A sometimes emotionally scattered debut, but the intriguing lore of the big-tusked, long-trunked quadrupeds transforms it into a lovely treatise on the noble compassion of animals.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-7867-0610-4
Page count: 224pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999


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by Jodi Picoult