The Elephant by Peter Carnavas
UQP RRP: $14.95 AUD
If you’re a regular reader of Peter Carnavas‘ words, or admirer of the illustrations in his many children’s picture book projects, it will come as no surprise to hear that his first novel is pretty extraordinary. The Elephant is the story of Olive, whose Dad is experiencing depression. Olive, meanwhile, is experiencing the depressing lack of a bike! Hers is broken and sitting in the shed awaiting her father’s attention. Her insightful friend Arthur provides a revelation:
‘Do you know what I think?’, he held his half eaten apple like a microphone. ‘Your dad won’t fix your bike – until you fix your dad.’
And so, Olive starts to plan a way to get rid of her dad’s elephant – the poignant, perfect metaphor she conjures for the lumbering, heavy, greyness that follows him through his days. But the elephant goes everywhere with her dad; it is not going to be easy to send it away.
Olive’s father is mourning the loss of her mother, who passed away when Olive was tiny. But his sadness has morphed into something more complex than grief (which can be complex enough); he is living with a debilitating depression that is affecting his work and his ability to engage with his now school-aged daughter.
Luckily, Olive also shares her life with a devoted grandfather who fills the parental voids – making school lunches, planning adventures, flying paper planes. Arthur provides both wisdom and giggles, and a devoted canine companion, Freddie, is also by her side. At school, Olive’s class is learning about ‘old and wonderful’ things. Each student is sharing trinkets and memories – typewriters, record players and cameras. Inspired by the school project, and buoyed by friends and family, Olive devises a winning plan to make her dad smile – and send the elephant off across the backyard and out of sight.
For some young readers, that’s as far as you’ll need to go with unpacking this story. It has a charming ‘happy ending’ and the optimistic Olive achieves her aim. It could work well as an introduction for kids to issues around grief, loss or mental health; it’s also simply a lovely story.
BUT, the keen reader will uncover so much more in this deceptively simple tale, which rewards a couple of reads through – even for grown ups.
As a book for young readers, the story is told through Olive’s eyes; hence, the nefarious, tentacular mess we adults understand as depression is rendered comprehensible to Olive (and the reader) by the use of an animal symbol. This particular elephant-in-the-room drives home the relentless, plodding, weight of lingering sadness even more effectively than Churchill’s pervasive ‘black dog’.
Carnavas is also skilled at adopting that child’s perspective; showcasing the precious mix of devotion and narcissism that characterises early childhood. I had a moment of concern, for example, about the suggestion that Olive might feel ‘responsible’ for her father’s happiness. No one would want any young reader to take from this book the idea that they need to ‘fix’ a grieving parent. But this book is not therapy; it’s a story. And it’s a story that accurately depicts the way children often do respond to parental emotions. They watch, they worry, they try to help. And ultimately, Olive doesn’t ‘fix’ her dad – but she does find a way to remind him that he has something to smile about, to live for, in her.
Around the halfway mark, just when you think you’re travelling a predictable story arc, The Elephant throws you a couple of surprise twists. The first comes when Olive takes a tumble from an enormous jacaranda tree in her yard – itself a symbol of continuity and security, making its way through the seasonal routines while the family it shelters grows and changes. Olive hits her head and blacks out, awaking later in her bedroom to be greeted by a rather worried looking grey tortoise!
As her head clears, she sees that the tortoise is sitting beside her grandfather. For Olive, this is the moment she realises her grandfather has his own sadness, in a different form, and she’s just made it worse by nearly killing herself! As an adult, this is the moment we reflect on the great sacrifice made by Olive’s grandfather in keeping the family going while he endures the loss of his daughter and – presumably – his own wife. With grace, wisdom, and a stiff upper lip, he soldiers on, in the hope that his son-in-law will, eventually, find his way out of the fog. As a reader (sitting in a doctor’s waiting room at the time) this was the point at which I had to put the book down for a minute to release the lump in my throat and blink a few times before reading on!
The other big twist is one I really shouldn’t spoil. Although a second reading of the novel – with secrets disclosed – is actually richer, not diminished by the ‘big reveals’.
Peter Carnavas’ work has been celebrated locally, published widely, and translated into several languages. The Elephant is his first novel for young readers and I have no doubt it will follow the same stellar trajectory.