Reviewed by Rod McLary
The Breaking is the debut adult novel by Irma Gold who has previously written a number of short stories and three children’s books. For her first foray into adult fiction, she has crafted an intriguing and moving story which focusses on two young Australian women – Hannah and Deven. They meet in a ‘shabby’ hostel lobby ‘ripe with the smell of mould’ in Chiang Mai. While the backdrop to the story is the beautiful people and country of Thailand, the sub-text is another matter.
Many westerners would know something of the world of elephant tourism in which some elephants suffer a lifetime of harsh punishment, deprivation of liberty and food – all for the ultimate benefit of the tourists. While offering opportunities for the tourists to ride on an elephant, the mahouts [or caretakers] of the elephants are able to provide for themselves and their families – thus creating an ethical dilemma difficult to resolve without the provision of alternative financial support for the families.
Against this sub-text is the developing friendship – and later the sexual relationship – between two young women who at first glance are quite different. Deven is streetwise and at home with Thai culture and language; Hannah can only be called a ‘tourist’ but, to her credit, one who readily acclimatises herself to the culture and learns to use basic Thai words. They quickly become friends and, with Deven’s encouragement, Hannah joins her in signing up to a sanctuary which rescues elephants from the tourism trade and rehabilitates them to good health.
Bringing together this developing relationship between Hannah and Deven and at the same time exposing the treatment of the elephants in a cohesive and engaging way would be a task beyond some writers. However, Irma Gold has managed it superlatively. The two strands of the story are woven together seamlessly.
Along the way, Deven draws attention to the less pleasant side of the tourism industry. For example, readers who may consider that placing their feet in a ‘fish bar’ where the fish nibble at them sounds novel and exciting could well have a different view after reading Deven’s take on the practice. There is one vignette in which ‘the breaking’ of a baby elephant is set out in heart-wrenching detail and highlights the despair felt by Hannah and Deven as they are obliged to stand by without intervening. References to other less salubrious aspects of tourism are also made but at no time do these references overtake the narrative.
Throughout the novel, the conflicting elements of Thai culture are juxtaposed – the kindness of the people set against their cruelty towards the captive elephants; their spirituality against the sleazy sex shows created to bring in tourist dollars; the contrast of wealth and poverty; and the gentle nature of the Thais against the crassness of the tourists.
To draw attention to the downside of tourism without over-emphasising it, the author introduces an ex-boyfriend of Hannah’s who stays with her in Chiang Mia for a few days. He is keen to engage in the seedier side of the city, and through this mechanism, the author further demonstrates the influence of – and perhaps the economic necessity for – tourism.
The author has said – in her Afterword – that the novel ‘blends fact and fiction’  and, to further add verisimilitude, Thai words are not italicised [as is the usual practice with foreign words] to encourage readers to engage with the language as Hannah and Deven do. In practice, this works well and it is relatively easy to make some assumptions about the meaning of the words from the context in which they are placed. For example, ‘sawatdee kha’ means ‘good evening’.
The Breaking is an engaging and, in its description of the treatment of the elephants, a sometimes confronting story. The characters of Hannah and Deven are finely drawn and the reader readily empathises with them as they confront the reality of animal tourism and its consequences for them as a couple.
Irma Gold is an award-winning author and editor. She has published a short story collection Two Steps Forward and three children’s books with a further two to be published in 2021. The Breaking is her first novel and it won the NSW Writer’s Centre Varuna Fellowship Award. Irma Gold is Ambassador for Thailand’s Save Elephant Foundation and has worked with elephants in Chiang Mai, Surin and Kanchanaburi.
by Irma Gold
Midnight Sun Publishing
ISBN 978 1 925227 81 9