Sculpting the Elephant

Written by Sylvia Vetta
Review by Sally Zigmond

It is 1997. Harry King lives in Oxford, deals in antiques and collectables, specialising in Art Deco. When he visits Charles Carew, who wishes to sell two magnificent Art Deco vases, Harry knows he must buy them. But there’s a snag; to do so, he must also accept a huge Victorian chest of drawers, belonging to Charles’s grandfather, Bartholomew Carew. Harry takes the chest with great reluctance.

So begins a fascinating but complex novel of adventure, the clash of cultures, the Indian Raj and the man who was responsible for the spread of Buddhism. Add to that the passionate love affair between Harry and Rammi Gupta, a beautiful Indian DPhil student at Oxford University.

The richly diverse novel alternates between Oxford and India in 1997 and the travels of Benjamin Carew in 1868. There are three viewpoints: those of Harry and Rammi both in Oxford, and in modern India, plus Bartholomew’s diary.

The novel would have completely captivated me if it had not had too much crammed between its covers. The two alternating narratives (1997 and the 1860s) are too much alike in narrative tone. Rammi speaks like the DPhil thesis she is working on, even when eating breakfast or lying in bed, and I couldn’t see why Harry was so entranced with her, apart from her beauty and style. This is a modern cross-cultural love affair with strong elements of myth.

Finally, the novel’s intriguing title is the words of an Indian sculptor as he creates an elephant out of rock. He said to Harry that his work involved “cutting out all that isn’t elephant.” In my opinion, the author would have created a page-turning historical novel if she’d concentrated on “cutting out all that isn’t novel.” Worth a look.