House of the White Elephant

Written by Byrna Barclay
Review by Jeffrey Manton

The House of Elephant is set in India and London in the nineteenth century and is a saga spanning a man’s life from youth to old age. It is extraordinarily original in terms of taking a boy with a mother driven mad by her indiscretion who has to then fight every step of the way to his success – with three wives, each different, each complementing the stage in his life. Lewis is an intriguing character, we follow him up the career ladder in India with all the pettiness of the Raj to fight, and all the discrimination. This isn’t just another ‘British Raj novel’ but brings out characters across the social scale and across races and faiths. The story is captivating and the writing evocative with a real feel for the sights and smells of India. This is a very different sort of book – no ‘same-old’ here. It’s an artistic creation.

There is quite a lot of describing, though, and at times this holds back the story. The reader may get lost as so many narrators skip about and in places this makes the story hard to follow as it detracts from the focus on Lewis. There is also too much focus on the secondary characters at times. All of which is a great pity because it was actually a treat to read something so different. If this novel had been shorter, trimmed down to concentrate on the story of Lewis in a more linear form – then it would be outstanding. This novel has the foundation of a great tale, the writing is above standard, the sweep of the period is compelling – but the structure, for all its artistry, is a distraction.

I strongly urge the author to consider a re-write and then a professional edit to transform an interestingly different novel into a great one.

 (Hard copy reviewed)