The World According to Renee

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Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen tells the story of an old man recalling his life. Now aged “90 or 93”, Jacob is living in a nursing home, feeling trapped because he still has most of his marbles and his family has forgotten him. The highlight of his week is the promise of seeing a circus which has come to town, sparking recollections of his own circus days during the Depression.

Sara Gruen started writing the novel as part of NaNoWriMo- a month long venture in which budding authors are encouraged to write 50,000 words during the month. She was inspired by a Depression-era photo of a real circus. She did extensive research into the behaviours of animals and also circuses of the time. She’s included interesting anecdotes into the novel: truth is often stranger than fiction.

Water for Elephants is cliched on so many levels. Not that I’m particularly familiar with the Bible, but  apparently the story is closely related to that of Jacob from the Old Testament. The old man recalling an interesting past reached a peak (for me at least) with The Green Mile. The usual plotlines of love and betrayal are mindlessly explored. What struck me is the lack of emotion within the writing. Jacob himself narrates the tale and although he’s hot headed and temperamental, there’s no real emotion pouring through the pages. The parts one is expected to be sad in, didn’t happen for me (whilst I’ve never cried during a movie, a good book will bring forth tears). Whether that was an intentional device used by Gruen to highlight the ‘strong man’ Jacob is or whether she’s just not good enough at illiciting an emotional response, I don’t know.

Several plot points weren’t tied up. The reason Jacob starts the tale is because he’s sitting next to a man at the nursing home who says he too worked for a circus, bringing water to the elephants. Jacob calls him a liar (“and an old coot!”) and thus begins the tale; but exactly why he was being called a liar is never explored. I’m sure elephants need to drink too… Why certain characters were redlighted (thrown from the moving train because they were considered a burden) has no reason although serves as the plot point for the climax. The reasons behind events remains largely ignored, forgotten in favour of moving the story along.

And move along, it certainly does. It was interesting enough for me to finish the novel in two days, and the end is appropriate, but I’m left wanting more answers and depth to the novel. Although a fitting end, it was largely unsatisfying. Hopefully these holes can be filled with the film adaptation: the movie is being filmed as I speak and due out next year.

Water for Elephants is definitely interesting and shows Depression-era America as both pathetic and glamourous. Several characters are physically weak and pathetic, contrasted against the grandeur of the performers and the Big Top. There’s no reason to become attached to the characters, a result of a lack of emotional bonding between the author and the reader.



June 28, 2010 - Posted by | Reviews

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