Date read: 3.13.2016
Book from: Personal collection
Elephantasm is a violent, brooding, erotic fantasy of revenge against imperialism and patriarchy: Tanith Lee takes on Heart of Darkness, by way of colonial India. Elephants, monsoons, open wounds, whips, trauma survivors, immolation. Lush madness and harsh justice prevail against the privileged and callous. Lee’s usual interest in tough, quiet, street-bred, canny/uncanny heroines is in evidence.
More unusual is the sense of social and emotional reality around the secondary characters, especially the villains, who tend to be brutish to the point of caricature in Lee’s work. Here, she builds up thoughtful layers of pathos and longing around the Gormenghastly members of the Smolte household, as despicable as they are. This makes the book more interesting – earthier, more human – at the same time that it sharpens the implacable moral judgment that eventually arrives. Structurally, Lee also does some good work with the interleaved perspectives and flashbacks; Elephantasm had more of a sense of being a constructed novel than many of her works, which often register as simply a bewildering outpouring of strange events.
The obsession with the physical whiteness of the heroic characters is troubling, but unsurprising given Lee’s vampiric tastes in human beauty. It is meant to mirror the importance of ivory and bone in the plot, and Lee also consciously works against the ‘white savior’ narrative by positioning her heroine as a conduit, not an incarnation, of the Hindu gods. Nonetheless, it’s an off note, and undermines the book’s desired radical message.
One of the odder elements of the book is the character of Elizabeth Willow, the Smoltes’ deranged cat-daughter, who maybe crept in from a story of her own, or arrived (now that I think of it) as a weird domestic inverse of The Jungle Book‘s Mowgli. I mention her a) because the proliferative violence of Tanith Lee’s imagination never fails to amuse me – that, having established a grotesque household of sexually obsessive parvenu malcontents, she just had to stuff in one more oddity; and b) because the predatory girl-child is one of my favorite figures (see also Merricat Blackwood), and I’m always happy to see her. I hope Elizabeth Willow had an interesting, if likely not long, life after the main events of the novel blew by.
Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
The Book of the Damned, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Madame Two Swords, by Tanith Lee (1988): review by Emera
Louisa the Poisoner, by Tanith Lee (1995): review by Emera