Rated of 5
by Nathan Rafael
When the Editors Stumble
While I found the subject matter of Tess Uriza Holthe's novel, When the Elephants Dance, compelling and engaging, I cannot say the same for her writing skills. Overwrought and flat, her narrative drags down what could have been a page-turner to a page-shuffler. I put this book aside many times, and if I had not made the commitment to read it for my book group I would not have finished it.
Ms. Holthe had several stories to tell, and she earns points for weaving them together adequately (though not seamlessly, as the transitions sometimes feel forced), but she lacks an ear for language and rhythm, and an essential sense of pacing. How, for example, does the reader benefit from multiple references to a starving character's grumbling stomach (all within a few pages)? Once or twice the information is duly noted, but after the seventh or eighth, perhaps tenth time, it becomes highly annoying. A reference to a wife "big with child" occurs three times in one paragraph! Repetition does not enhance, but rather seriously detracts from the forcefulness of the story, unless it is accomplished in some poetic way, definitely not the case under Holthe's leaden pen. We do not need a blow-by-blow description to feel engaged in a tale, we need leaner prose, more concise action, economy of language. Also, too many characters to keep straight muddle the plot, especially when the way they express themselves does not vary significantly.
This book required serious copy-editing that, amazingly, did not happen. Translations from Tagalog and Spanish to English are excessive and seem stilted. And totally unforgiveable are the many references to "caribou", or arctic reindeer. I kept wondering what they were doing in the tropical Philippines? After a few hundred pages, the puzzle was finally solved: the author meant "carabao", or water buffalo! Where was the editor? Asleep at the controls. Harrowing tales of survival in brutal wartime and occupation are not enough when expressed ineffectively. This novel should have been at least a hundred pages shorter, if Holthe and her editors had done their work properly.