Somewhat in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s story of finding herself amid a year of exploring other countries, BOWING TO ELEPHANTS (subtitled “Tales of a Travel Junkie”) is Mag Dimond’s account of never sitting still. The title comes from one of the book’s signature moments: Dimond staring into the eyes of a 14,000-pound African elephant, an encounter that brings peace and self-awareness. Other travels take her to the forests of India, the streets of Paris, the canals of Venice, the mountains of Bhutan, the temples of Burma, the beaches of Vietnam, and the plains of Cambodia.
From her earliest years, Dimond was well-traveled, and not by choice. Her parents separated when she was eight, prompting her aloof, avant-garde mother to quickly remarry and whisk the family from San Francisco to Florence to Rome in the span of a year, with visits to New York for good measure. Unlike other writers who have chronicled dysfunctional childhoods, Dimond didn’t grow up poor or persecuted. She was, however, profoundly lonely. This comes through loud and clear in the scenes of childhood Dimond spreads throughout her narrative, suggesting the book’s central conceit: her trips as a worldwide search for the security and sense of belonging that eluded her growing up. In the end, she accepts the death of the mother she never really had, finding that elusive well-being by converting to Buddhism, which she still practices.
Despite a typo here and there, Dimond is a craftsman, filling her book with potent images like “cold wiggly fear” and “red wine in the glass carafe, where it shone like a ruby.” She also gets in a few zingers, as when she describes her “beautiful mother, who preferred her evening cocktails to my company.” There are seeds of adventure, such as her love affair on the Giulio Cesare, an ocean liner, with an Italian boy named Concetto. She was thirteen; he was eighteen. Though ultimately uneventful, the encounter could have been one of the book’s highlights; instead, it is one story among many. The biggest whiff is Dimond’s mother, who should be written as a scene-chewing diva, the Cruella De Vil of parenting. Yet Dimond keeps her locked up, describing her foibles but never letting her out to run wild. It’s the old saw “show, don’t tell,” and it makes a difference.
A mix of lush travel writing and not-quite-there exposé, BOWING TO ELEPHANTS evocatively dramatizes one woman’s lifelong pursuit for purpose and meaning.
~Anthony Aycock for IndieReader