This is one of those books that engaged me, but for which I can come up with little praise in retrospect. At first I wanted to round up to 3 stars, reflecting my level of enjoyment, but quality-wise it’s more of a 1.5. So we'll call it a 2.
When the Elephants Dance purports to be a tale of civilians living through the Japanese occupation (and American recapture) of the Philippines during World War II, narrated alternatively by a nationalist guerrilla leader, a teenage girl, and her preteen brother. Fortunately--since that storyline is weak--more than half the book is spent in folk tales, as five other characters narrate stories from their pasts, replete with magical realism.
The war story starts out engaging, but quickly becomes melodramatic, full of one-dimensional characters and clichéd emotion. It’s relatively fast-paced, with endless captures, escapes and rescues, but clunky and awkwardly written, a problem only aggravated by poor use of the first-person present tense. Ultimately, I just didn’t buy the author’s handling of war or trauma, which is full of cheap drama and devoid of genuine, thoughtful character-defining moments. The more extreme the characters’ situations, the less interesting and less believable they become. And they're almost always extreme.
But Holthe’s writing about life in the embedded tales--with themes like sibling relations, political awakening and falling in love--is better. The tales are genuinely intriguing, their prose is passable, and they include some of the character development missing from the frame story. Anna’s realization that her first priority in marriage is a mother-in-law who will prefer her to her sister, for instance, is one of those moments that stands out because it’s unusual and tells us a lot about her character.
But then, the folk tales are awkwardly dropped into the frame story, with little introduction and no follow-up. (Much the way that whole dialogues in Tagalog are dumped into the text, only for every word to be immediately translated into English.) Nor are there meaningful parallels in theme or escalation of tension; the frame story and the characters’ understanding of each other within it are so unaffected by the tales that they might as well be a separate book entirely. For that matter, the same storytellers who are reasonably interesting in the tales are as flat as everyone else in the main story, and even afterwards I had a hard time remembering which cardboard character went with which folk tale (particularly with the three interchangeable middle-aged men; the elderly man and the one woman are a bit more distinct). Unsurprisingly, all eight voices sound identical.
Throughout, the sense of place is superficial--the Philippines is a vaguely tropical but ill-defined locale. Thus, while disappointed, I was not surprised to discover from other reviews that Holthe (a Filipino-American) made a number of mistakes in the culture and geography.
What’s evident even to a reader with no knowledge of the country is the lack of thought put into detail. The preteen boy narrator tells us, for instance, that he used to walk 20 km each way to work: that’s a 25-mile round trip, or roughly 6 hours’ daily commute if he walks briskly and doesn’t take breaks. He’s hardly the only potential triathlete in the story: people regularly traverse impressive distances in scant time, over uneven terrain, while injured, without food and often carrying heavy loads. That’s when they’re not busy explaining to each other the meanings of words in their own language. In my favorite moment, one Filipina says to another, "Karangalan [your last name] means 'honor' in Tagalog, but you know that, right?" Presumably they're speaking Tagalog, so she's actually saying "Karangalan means 'karangalan.'" Um, right.
Overall, then, while Holthe shows some potential in the folk tales, this clunky, awkward book left a poor impression. It did entertain, but it’s not one I'd recommend.