‘White Elephant’ by Catherine Cooper

White ElephantReviewed by Dan Twerdochlib

In the early 1990s, when Sierra Leone is on the cusp of civil war, Dr. Richard Berringer uproots his Nova Scotia family and moves to the West African country so he can fulfill his dream of healing the poor. But the political turmoil of the country takes a backseat to family dysfunction in Catherine Cooper’s first novel, White Elephant. The book follows The Western Home, Cooper’s collection of short stories about the American folk song, “Home On The Range.”

In White Elephant, Richard struggles to find fulfillment through his work in Sierra Leone. He is unable to see eye-to-eye with his boss and has trouble tactfully expressing his objections to the cultural practices of his patients. There is trouble at home, too. His wife has fallen ill with what Richard diagnoses as an imaginary ailment, while his son, Torquil, pushes back against his displacement with every petty act of rebellion he can muster.

The Berringers are brought to Sierra Leone not only by Richard’s philanthropic pursuits, but also as a consequence of his philandering. Back in Nova Scotia, frustrated with his wife’s overzealous home renovations and her reaction to an allergen with an untraceable cause, Richard begins an affair that quickly becomes office gossip. He loses the last of his credibility when he wrongly accuses his staff of conspiring against him, blaming them for a prank pulled by his son. Much like the professor in J. M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize–winning novel, Disgrace, the Berringers leave the country hoping things blow over in their absence.

Unlike Coetzee’s novel, however, atonement never becomes a motivation for the doctor, whose bullheadedness prevents him from relating to anyone’s perspective but his own. Hard to work with and hard to live with, he’s also not the only one of the novel’s characters that’s hard to like. Ann, his wife, is deceitful, whiny and manipulative. Torquil is disrespectful, sneaky and tortures small animals. For the first quarter of the novel, Cooper sketches out the Berringers as so unlikeable that you begin to question if you even care how their problems are resolved.

But something remarkable happens about halfway through the novel. The Berringers don’t quite become better people, but somehow they become characters capable of eliciting empathy from the reader. Richard remains physically and emotionally abusive toward his son. As a result, Ann takes on the responsibility of disciplining Torquil, and it’s hard not to respect her efforts to deal with an out-of-control teenager and unhelpful husband—even as this does nothing to mitigate her own flaws and shortcomings as a member of the family.

There are similarities between Torquil and the teenaged main character of Cooper’s “Nuclear Heartland,” a short story published in Brick. In both, Cooper’s depiction of adolescence is characterized by a fearlessness of impending danger, or maybe a obliviousness to it, and a preoccupation with discomfort in the here and now. At a time when civil war looms in Sierra Leone, Torquil plays out scenes from his favourite war movie in the vicinity of real soldiers with live ammunition. He also manages to get entangled in a moneymaking scheme with his best friend’s uncle just to watch a couple of VHS tapes. His actions are often a direct cause of his family’s problems, but Cooper is able to cast Torquil as having a capacity for redemption despite the thoughtlessness of his actions. Cruel, unrepentant and borderline incestuous, Torquil eventually saves the day not in spite of his personality but because of it.

As a form of travel literature, the novel bears some inevitable displays of white privilege. Richard makes it his mission to fight the practice of female circumcision with guns blazing, but it comes at the expense of undoing the trust-building work of those who have been working in the region for much longer, long before he arrived. His self-interest is echoed in Ann’s self-pity and Torquil’s appeals to leave Sierra Leone—where there’s nothing to eat and nothing to do—and return to Canada. But unlike most travel lit, White Elephant seeks to satisfy the reader not through conquest of the other but through defeat of its characters. The end of the novel leaves the Berringers broken and humbled, but as a family they are stronger than ever before.

White Elephant has some of the typical watermarks of a first novel. At times, the dialogue verges on banter, and there’s enough excess length to warrant a bit of a haircut —especially given what Cooper is able to accomplish in a short story— but the author’s character development is impressive—subtle yet profound. As the novel closes, the Berringers’ strength as a family culminates in a page-turning conclusion. Alongside family dysfunction, White Elephant is packed with medicine, miracles and exorcisms, which makes it a book about healing in any sense you can imagine.

Freehand | 352 pages | $21.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1554813034

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