Kim Echlin's Elephant Winter
(Penguin/Viking, 208 pages, $25 cloth) is an original, emotionally resonant novel. Sophie Walker, the narrator, is back home from Africa; her forty-nine-year-old artist mother, who is dying of cancer, has asked her to return. At the safari park that borders her mother's southern Ontario farm, Sophie finds solace from the daily responsibilities and unavoidable feelings that come from caring for her beloved parent. The park, a tourist attraction, is closed to the public for the winter, the only activity being the daily appearances of the elephants and their keeper, Jo. Sophie's interest in the elephants quickly develops into an affair with Jo, who is in many ways her opposite. He's a man more comfortable indoors than outdoors, more at ease with silence than with words. He never quite seems to understand Sophie's interest in elephant language, or her painstaking transcription of elephant sounds from the tapes she makes. Sections of this transcript are interspersed through the book, evocative complements to the main narrative.
The characterization is vivid, the writing for the most part unadorned, yet at times startlingly poetic. Echlin draws her characters with realistic, unsentimentalized strokes, and in the process evokes their poignant humanness with honesty and grace. Sophie's mother-ornery one moment, exuberant the next-is an especial triumph. Her headstrong artistic temperament, passion for birds and classical music, undeniable lust for life, and deep love for Sophie-all undercut by a death for which she in no way feels ready-are both moving and convincing. Even the "villain", Alecto Rikes, a mute scientist, whose interest in elephants only as physiological specimens contrasts sharply with Sophie's, cannot be dismissed as a mere stereotype. He's far too interesting.
Death, art, language; the bond between mothers and daughters, people and animals; scientific versus intuitive understanding: Elephant Winter is about all these matters and more. Stylistically assured, entirely captivating, this novel is sure to be much talked about in the coming months.