Now it’s no secret I’m unashamedly enamoured by Carnavas’ work; his illustrated picture books embrace you like a warm welcome hug. This, his first foray into longer narratives, is a hug you can immerse yourself even deeper into but beware, you may not want to let go. I didn’t.
The Elephant is an average-sized, understated junior novel for people with small hands and large hearts. Even the cover is benign and quiet, muting the enormity of what’s to come. It reads with the elegant crispness of a verse novel using a collection of brief chapters to relay Olive’s story about her dad and the lugubrious grey elephant that plagues his every move. Despite the heavy nature of Olive’s situation, it’s this wonderful lightness of touch, Carnavas’ refined way with words to convey powerful meaning and Olive’s own irrepressible personality that add the light to her father’s shade and give this story a sunny disposition.
Yet still, the horrible grey elephant that Olive imagines shadowing her father refuses to yield, let alone leave. Olive comes to realise that while her father is sad, ‘nothing could scare it away’. Her father’s sadness manifested itself after the loss of Olive’s mother and like the grey elephant, he seems incapable of chasing it away.
This is a tale of loss and despair, a glimpse at those places we accidentally find ourselves plunged into following moments of intense emotional upset and are unable to claw our way out of. Yet the story is not clouded with abject desolation. It never feels cheerless or sad thanks to Olive’s best mate, Arthur and his buoyant best-mate logic. ‘Just get rid of the elephant,’ Arthur advises Olive.
Olive’s Grandad, her ‘most favourite old and wonderful thing’, who does everything for her – a replacement mum as it were – teaches Olive about nature, patience, beauty in small places and somehow always fills her days with colour. Olive’s bond with these two will warm the cockles of your heart until finally, deep within hers, she finds the way to send the elephant packing once and for all.
There’s a touch of M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense purity about Olive and her tendency to ‘see things’. I was also reminded of The Brown Dog by Gina Inverarity as I read this, not to mention my own picture book, The Fix-It Man, that all deal with loss and grief and sadness. It is tough enough dealing with the loss of a parent through death. How a child deals with the absence of a living parent, one still physically with them but not emotionally with them is an ordeal that Carnavas handles with respect and sensitivity. This story does not sadden, it sings with optimism.
The Elephant explores the sensations and emotions of grief and despair with a decisive yet delicate touch in a way very young readers will warm to and I think, truly understand. The Elephant is much more than just a touching, tender tale about loss. Its subtle references to depression and mental and emotional decay have poignant and far reaching implications for us all, especially those touting around their own enormous grey animals of despair.
It’s a gentle yet assured nod at mindfulness and an invitation to embrace empathy. Sprinkled with humour and endearing illustrations, The Elephant is a must read. It will not rip your heart in two with unchecked tragedy. It will, however, massage it firmly and then fill it with gladness. I can’t love this enough.
UQP July 2017
For those in SE QLD make sure you get yourself to the launch of The Elephant at Riverbend Books, Bulimba, 22nd of July.