Book review: Elephants with Headlights by Bem Le Hunte

Le Hunte uses the characters of two young people to explore cultural differences.

At a time of drought, bushfires, and the invasion of a pernicious virus, a novel brimming with optimism is more than welcome. That this is an optimistic narrative is particularly interesting, given it uses the concept of marriage to canvass the clash of incompatible cultures and the generation gap – matters which are often more likely to engender pessimism.

In Elephants with Headlights, Bem Le Hunte uses the characters of a sister and brother, Savitri and Neel, to explore the cultural differences between India and Australia, as well as the generational differences between the siblings and their forebears, and whether they can be resolved.

Indian-born Savitri and her brother Neel grow up in Delhi, the pampered children of wealthy Hindu parents, Sidharth and Tota. Although Savitri is presented with a range of suitable young men from the right sorts of families, she is adamant that she does not want to ever get married. Her attitude changes, however, when she comes to Australia to visit her uncle. She marvels at the bikini-clad and topless young women she sees, unmolested and almost unnoticed, enjoying a Sydney beach, and hastens to get less modest swimwear for herself. She falls in love with Australia, albeit a somewhat idealised Australia of the well-to-do and privileged; while the novel gives the reader glimpses of the poorer side of Indian society, the darker side of Australian life is nowhere to be seen.  

Neel shares Savitri’s attachment to Australia, a country in which he found the woman he loves. Savitri also falls in love with an Australian, setting up problems of acceptance by their Indian family. Both Savitri and Neel’s attitudes to marriage contrast with those of previous generations, from their views of the importance of the right marriage to the appropriate person in the proper manner to whether there is even any need for a cohabiting couple to go through a wedding ceremony. The young people believe they have the right to be happy, unlike the previous generation: ‘Happiness had never entered into the discussion between families, being at the pinnacle in the hierarchy of needs and therefore not a necessary aspiration.’ Strangely, though, there seems to be no problem at the Australian end.

An intriguing character in Elephants with Headlights is the ‘two-hundred-year-old guru, who appeared beatific and smiling, and even looked a few years younger than Sidharth himself – the cheek of it!’ The guru bestows on Sidharth all the worries of the world. This gift, or curse, enables Sidharth to read minds, a power which leads to unexpected consequences.

This is not a novel focused on any particular flavour of feminism although most of the leading characters in this novel are women. But Elephants with Headlights is about marriage – an institution that has imprisoned women in many cultures through the ages. Thus it is both appropriate and heartening that one of the most conservative characters in this novel, Tota:

. . . had been thinking of the fourth wave of feminism . . .The first wave involved the suffragette movement, basic bloody rights; the second was all about gender politics, us against them; and the third wave was what she described as girlie feminism, defined by individualism and individual rights. And now it was time for the obvious step . . . for feminists to support other women.

It may not come as a surprise to many readers, although it did to Tota, that supporting women may mean supporting them in a culture that is anathema to those readers. While these are serious matters, Elephants with Headlights is an entertaining novel dealing with some complex issues in an easily digested form.

3 ½ stars out of 5

Elephants with Headlights by Bem Le Hunt
Publisher: Transit Lounge Publishing
Format: Paperback
Pages: 304pp
Release Date: March 2019
RRP: $29.99

Erich Mayer
About the Author
Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog