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Sophie Walker is back from Africa to nurse her dying mother. Her mother's Ontario farm borders on "Safari"—a tacky tourist spot now deserted for the winter. From her mother's window Sophie sees not cows, or horses, but a group of Indian elephants playing gracefully in the snow. Elephant Winter is a novel about the forms of intimacy, from the turbulent love between a mother and daughter to the fulfilling bond between Sophie and the elephants.
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Elephant Winter is full of hushed wonders and harsher realities. When 30-year-old Sophie Walker returns to Canada to be with her dying mother, she thinks her stay will be temporary. While the two "settle into the daily business of waiting," she is drawn to her unlikely neighbors, the keeper of the Ontario Safari and his five elephants. Soon enough, in fact, Sophie falls for both Jo and his charges, and decides to record and explore elephant language and mores. Even in captivity, Sophie finds, these creatures strive for the greatest happiness and good for all, a far cry from the individualism of humans.
One visitor in particular is an almost allegorical representation of self-interest at any cost, and Jo seems incapable of banishing him. That would be Alecto Ryle. This unwelcome guest turns out to have made his reputation on sadistic experiments and autopsy reports, not to mention the massacres that enabled them--and now he's hanging around the Safari, waiting for one or more of the animals to die.
In her first novel, Kim Echlin can occasionally be expository, particularly in Sophie's five-part Elephant-English Dictionary. This is a very different beast from the glossary Barbara Gowdy created for The White Bone, but it also has its beauties. Describing one salute, Sophie admits that most keepers "hold in disdain people who romanticize elephants, but I have seen my elephants singing this evening song into the grey Ontario winter twilight. Their bodies appear to soften and shift like clouds on the rocky fields." Though Elephant Winter's human factor is itself gripping, Echlin's evocation of the intimate rapport between her heroine and the creatures she inherits can be sublime. After the matriarch, Kezia, loses her baby, she unshackles herself and escapes.
Through the darkness I finally saw her body, swaying down the road where horse farms and vegetable farms were strung like beads through the fields. She walked slowly and alone on that dark country road as if she were memorizing something. Drops of milk hung frozen from her breast.Terrified that Kezia will panic, Sophie realizes that the best thing to do is let her take charge, and puts her arm out: "After an infinite five seconds, she reached out, hooked her trunk around my arm, slowly turned and began to lead me home." Readers not intrigued by elephants or by the possibility of deep communication will not be taken by this lyrical novel--but are there such people? --Kerry Fried About the Author:
Award-winning author Kim Echlin lives in Toronto. She is the author of Elephant Winter and Dagmar’s Daughter, and her third novel, The Disappeared, was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction. Her most recent novel is Under the Visible Life.
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