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June 28, 2016

White Elephant, by Catherine Cooper

white-elephantThere is a way to get around the problem of writing about white people in Africa, which is by making them abjectly horrible. White people who are coming to Africa in order to “help,” no less, the latest chapter in centuries of colonialism. In Catherine Cooper’s debut novel, White Elephant, the African country is Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, on the cusp of its brutal decade long civil war. Dr. Richard Berringer has arrived to fulfil a long sought dream of working in Africa, helping and healing, along with his wife, Ann, and their son, Torquil. Except that Ann is wretchedly ill, their son is miserable, and Richard is failing to connect with his patients in the way he desires. His attempts to educate them about female genital mutilation and treating illnesses with the local herbalist fall go unregarded, and his views invite hostility from his colleagues who protest that he doesn’t understand the implications of his words and actions. And we see that a failure to work well with others has troubled Richard before, in fact it’s partly what drove him to Sierra Leone, after falling out with another doctor with whom he shared a practice.  Not to mention the affair which made him a target of gossip back home in their Nova Scotia community, where he and Ann had been subject to too much attention already thanks to the ostentatious house she’d had built for them and spent so much time and money decorating. Except that once they’d finally moved it, it had been here where her illness had started, something growing in the walls, she thought—mould? The problem driving her mad to the point where she was closing off rooms and/or hacking through the walls, and then news of her husband’s affair had thrown things into a further state of disarray, and it was around this point where they made the move to Sierra Leone—isn’t it amazing that these people would think they’re in a position to help anybody?

The story is told in chapters moving between the three members of the Berringer family, each of whom is perfectly terrible in his or her own way, eternally casting themselves as victims of their tale. Each of these people is also very hard to like, to sympathize with, Cooper making clear that these aren’t meant to stand for ordinary people but are each their own personal brand of awful. Solipsistic, oblivious to how they are perceived by others and of their effect on the world around them, short-sighted, cruel and mean. On one hand, all of this can get to be a bit much—Ann and Richard are so loathsome it’s a bit hard to fathom how they ever even liked each other once upon a time. But on a symbolic level, it’s perfectly apt, and attests to the inherent self-interest of white people turning up in Africa ever since white people started turning up anywhere.

The story is a little bit too long—there is so much action in the present day as the story moves toward its climax, and then all the details of the past are all drawn out in flashbacks, and it takes a little while for momentum to build. But once it begins, the story is quite gripping, these terrible people hurtling toward their inevitable disaster. The consequences of Torquil’s usual troublemaking have higher stakes in an area that is slowly becoming a war zone, soldiers patrolling checkpoints nearby, plus Ann finds her place about zealous missionaries and decides adopting an orphan would make her into the kind of person she wants to be, and Richard’s determination to provide medical care to a girl who’s been accused to witchcraft has results far beyond what he’s expected. Against all this drama, the three are grappling with more ordinary questions about love and family and marriage and home—and then there’s those threatening letters from Canadian Revenue. The only thing sure (although none of them see it) is that the end isn’t going to be pretty.

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