Irma Gold's The Breaking is an assured and powerful debut novel about life, love and animal cruelty

Canberra author Irma Gold. Picture: Karleen Minney
Canberra author Irma Gold. Picture: Karleen Minney
  • The Breaking, by Irma Gold. MidnightSun Publishing, $29.99.

It's certainly a pleasure to read a book by a well-known and established novelist, where one finds one's expectations met, or even surpassed. However, there is nothing quite as exciting as encountering a new and important voice. Irma Gold's The Breaking is a debut novel, and it is both gripping and moving.

Gold is a well-known writer of short stories and children's books, as well as an accomplished editor. The Breaking shows evidence of the skills developed in these fields; there is little time lost before we are plunged into the world of the main characters, and the novel unfolds in three sections, each leading seamlessly onto the next. There is a growing tension as we move though the book, without spelling things out too obviously.

The novel is set in Thailand, where Australian Hannah meets the far more dynamic, decisive, and sometimes reckless, Deven. ("Parentals did the dirty over in Pommyland but couldn't spell for shit", is how she explains that unusual "e".) At Deven's prompting, Hannah travels with her to an elephant sanctuary, where elephants are rehabilitated after a lifetime of cruelty. Cruelty is central to the "breaking" of young elephants (they are not domestic animals, like dogs), and brutal force must be administered throughout their lives to keep them obedient.

Hannah marvels that tourists just don't see the evidence of the ongoing cruelty, happily taking photos of themselves next to obviously abused and scarred elephants, disciplined with bulllhooks. "Now one of the girls was holding onto its trunk and it was lifting her off the ground. The other girl was taking a flurry of photos. Did they not see the thin line of blood?" Some of the descriptions of the methods used to break elephants down are extremely graphic, and I had to put the novel aside a few times, such was the visceral effect of these passages. This is a demonstration of the strength of the prose, rather than a fault. A rare sighting of wild elephants adds a welcome relief from the scenes of cruelty.

Thai-led rehabilitation, and working with locals to show alternative ways of living with elephants, are central to the novel. The possibility of direct action is a temptation for some. Gold explores these different approaches alongside the development of Hannah and Deven's relationship. Hannah is, at first, rather a weak character, used to living in the shadows of her high-achieving parents. She follows Deven wherever the more assertive woman suggests. However their relationship deepens as the novel unfolds, in some moving scenes of discovery and love.

The books contrasts the position of visitors from relatively wealthy countries such as Australia in Thailand, whether they be tourists or activists, with the poverty of many locals and other residents. For example, Kannika, a transgender woman from Myanmar, is paid less than Thais for her work, although she is relatively safe from direct harm in Thailand. There are, of course, many drunken Westerners with little regard for Thai culture. But even Hannah and Deven, who generally try to act respectfully, always have the possibility of another life back home in Australia, and this colours their actions and views, leading to the novel's unforgettable climax. It is worth noting that Gold thanks two Thai consultants for carefully reading the manuscript in her acknowledgements, and the perhaps inevitable cultural false steps made by Hannah, and, eventually Deven, throughout their time in Thailand are an important element in the novel.

Gold has a real talent for dialogue. There is none of the overreaching that one sometimes encounters, where each statement by a character seems oddly artificial, as if English were being translated from another language by a 19th-century computer.

Such natural-sounding speech is a feature of the book; it's as if we are overhearing real conversation. Hardly a word is wasted throughout the book, and Gold spins a narrative web around the reader without it being noticed. That is artful, without being too arty.

The Breaking's title refers, obviously, to the breaking of elephants, but more positively, to Hannah breaking through some of the expectations that have been placed on her, in regard to her behaviour and sexuality. The dramatic and even dangerous events she is involved in allow, even demand, that she make choices as to how she wants to live, rather than just drifting.

Some of the passages in The Breaking will stay with the reader for a very long time after the book is finished. Gold has produced a rich and thought-provoking novel, written in lucid and engaging prose. I hope The Breaking proves to be her breakout novel, with many more to come.

  • Penelope Cottier wrote a PhD on images of animals in the works of Charles Dickens at the Australian National University.
This story An assured and powerful debut first appeared on The Canberra Times.