I have broken a golden rule! That is, I am reviewing Irma Gold’s debut novel, The breaking, out of the order in which I received it for review, which is something I (almost) never do! But, I am attending an author event on this book this weekend, and I really wanted to have read it before that conversation.
The breaking is an example of a growing “genre” of literature, eco-literature. This literature encompasses cli-fi, and focuses on human activities that endanger the environment in some way. It’s a broad church, covering climate, water and the land, deforestation, animal rights, and more. Books in this genre are often inspired by their writer’s passions. They tend to have a strong plot because the author wants to engage the reader in an issue: how better to do this than with an engaging plot. However, the plot is, largely, subservient to the issue, because at heart these are political novels, often in the “personal-is-the-political” sense.
So, some examples? Heather Rose’s Bruny (my review), which is deeply concerned about the future of Tasmania, Angela Savage’s crime novel The dying beach (my review), which explores the impact of shrimp-farming on the environment, and Karen Viggers’ novels, like The orchardist’s daughter (my review) which addresses deforestation, are three. These could be called “passion project” books. Critics often find this sort of writing difficult to asses. If it sells well, if it’s popular, is it good?
I’m going to sidestep the implication of that concern, and simply say that of course something popular can be good. If it’s well-plotted, well-written, has engaging characters – and deals intelligently with something relevant or important – then it’s good.
All of this is a very long introduction to Irma Gold’s book, but relevant, I hope. So, The breaking? The title doesn’t give away its passion, though if you look carefully at the gorgeous cover you might see it. It’s the plight or exploitation of elephants in Thailand. Gold, as she explains in the Afterword – I love an Afterword – has been to Thailand, and worked with elephant rescue projects, so she knows whereof she speaks. (I hope to have more to share after the weekend!)
It’s a grim situation, as I’m sure you know, and, like many grim situations in developing nations, it’s complicated by the fight for survival. For many Thais, elephants are their bread-and-butter, both as beasts of burden and, more, for their tourist potential. Gold addresses this dilemma in her novel without being overtly didactic, by having her characters see the situation with their own eyes, discussing it with each other, and weighing up the options.
“Be brave” (Deven)
The breaking is about two young Australian women, Hannah Bird, who has just arrived in Thailand as a tourist, unsettled and insecure because she’s lost her job, and Deven, who has been living there for some time and is involved in elephant rescue projects. They meet in a hostel lobby, as tourists do, and the experienced Deven invites Hannah to go to the night markets with her. From there, a friendship – and eventually something more – develops as the somewhat naive Hannah is drawn into the more experienced and confident Deven’s passions and views of the world. It’s not long before we discover the layers in the title as Hannah is introduced to the cruel practice of phajaan.
We follow their trajectory – told in Hannah’s first person voice – as they tread an activist’s path. It starts with involvement in organised, legal rescue projects that aren’t going to change the world quickly. However, as often happens to those who stay the course, they find themselves confronted with the ultimate activist’s dilemma of “how far will you go” for the cause you believe in? Always, it is Hannah following Deven, deeper and deeper into both political and personal engagement. Deven is driven to save those elephants, while Hannah, who believes in the cause, is more cautious, but, she’s falling for Deven, so, where Deven goes … the ending is powerful, confronting us head on with what can happen if you let passion rule your brain.
“We have to change the culture” (Deven)
Throughout all this Gold takes us on a journey through Thailand, showing it through the eyes of wide-eyed oblivious tourists, like Hannah, and those of the more experienced, aware Deven, who rejects the tourist path, the ladyboy shows, the elephant rides, and so on. Gold shares the food and culture of Thailand, using local words with little attempt to translate. She addresses this in her Afterword, explaining that although it is traditional to italicise foreign words, she “made a deliberate decision not to” do so here. Italics, she says, makes it easy for readers to “skim over foreign words” but she “wanted to encourage readers to engage with Thai language in the way that the Australian characters attempt to”. Gold’s solution is deft, because we readers puzzle and feel our way along with narrator Hannah, who is guided but not spoon-fed by Deven. Deven can be tender and caring, but she doesn’t mollycoddle!
However, if I have given you the impression that Hannah is all follower and Deven all leader, then you’ll have the wrong impression. Deven, alienated from her parents, has her own demons, and Hannah is not a push-over. As the novel progresses she takes in what Deven says but processes it in her own way. She sees “it’s not that simple; it’s not that black and white”, while for Deven it is simple. The denouement suggests where Gold lies, but the question remains for each reader, where do you lie? And, beyond that, whose rights should prevail?
Irma Gold’s The breaking reminded me somewhat of Madeleine Dickie’s Troppo (my review), which also explores the experience of young Australians caught up in unfamiliar lives and cultures, and who must forge their own way, morally and ethically, in places where the usual signposts are missing. Like Troppo, The breaking is an engaging debut novel that encourages us to consider some of the critical questions of our time.
Rundle Mall, MidnightSun, 2021