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Elephant Walk by Robert Standish

NEL, 1968, 252 p. First published 1948.

Elephant Walk cover

The Elephant Walk of the title is a very prosperous tea (once coffee, till a disease blighted the crop) plantation in Sri Lanka (Ceylon as was) whose founder, Tom Carey, built “the Big Bungalow” across a traditional elephant trail. Despite being dead for years Carey’s attitudes and prescriptions for life still dominate life in the bungalow – as mediated through the main servant Appuhamy (who periodically talks to the old master at his graveside) and with the parrot Erasmus ensuring Carey’s voice is still heard regularly – with open house for other local planters. Carey’s almost middle–aged son, George, takes a trip to England. (Here, in an incidental conversation with a pair fascinated by Buddhism, “George … remarked that the only Buddhist priest he had ever come in contact with had seemed to prefer small boys to mysticism.” Some things are universal and timeless it would seem.) George is attracted by the charms of Ruth Lakin; chiefly her ability at tennis. He soon proposes and Ruth seizes eagerly at her chance for a more comfortable existence.

Back in Ceylon the presence of a woman in the Big Bungalow puts all sorts of noses out of joint, while George’s drinking puts a strain on the marriage. An accident in which George breaks his leg throws Ruth into closer contact with George’s assistant Geoffrey Wilding. The Sinhalese plantation workers soon infer, wrongly to begin with, that their working relationship has improper aspects, but the seeds for an eternal triangle have been sown. Once the relationship has been consummated Ruth finds herself in thrall to her feelings for Wilding.

The advent of the Great War throws a spanner into their lives. Without knowing he is the father of Ruth’s unborn child Wilding leaves for Europe and news eventually comes he is missing, presumed dead. Ruth resolves to make the best of things. Wilding has been captured though and escapes to Holland. His return to Ceylon precipitates the book’s, and Ruth’s, crisis, not helped by the fact that Wilding’s war experiences have changed him.

The web of character relationships here is complex, and each has his or her own motivations. The oddnesses and assumptions of colonial life are well depicted. Appuhamy’s devotion to having things just so – as they have always been that way even if extravagantly wasteful – his acceptance of minor change to avoid dismissal, the jealousies of the beautiful Rayna, a Sinhalese outcast girl whom Appuhamy procures in an attempt to distract Wilding from Ruth. Standish’s desire to portray the Big Bungalow as a character in its own right doesn’t quite work though and while the occasional foray into the thoughts of the bull elephant injured while navigating the trail when the bungalow was being built are necessary for plot and dénouement reasons they do not accord with what knowledge of elephants I thought I possessed. (Only remembering the bungalow when approaching it? A bull elephant leading a herd rather than being solitary? Do Asian elephants differ in these regards from African ones?)

Standish didn’t have pretensions, there’s no fine writing here, but it’s a good solid piece of fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- strategem (stratagem, spelled correctly later.) “George’s attentiveness and solicitude was impeccable” (attentiveness and solicitude were.) “‘Blame then?’” (Blame them,) “his little brain” (of a bull elephant? Big brain I should think,) “two whiskies-and-sodas” (two whiskies-and-soda: at least Standish spared us “whisky-and-sodas”,) “‘I like to to be exclusive’” (only one “to” needed,) “‘it does no look much now’” (does not look,) at one point George Carey makes a comment on information which the reader already knows but he hasn’t been told.

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