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White Elephant

Freehand Books, 2016

Finalist for the 2017 First Novel Award
Finalist for the 2017
Alberta Trade Fiction Book of the Year Award

Set in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, White Elephant tells the story of a troubled Nova Scotian family who decide to abandon their recently-completed dream home in Canada and move to a village in northern Sierra Leone, despite warnings that the West African country is in a civil war.


When the novel begins, Richard Berringer, a physician, his wife, Ann, and their thirteen-year-old son, Torquil, have been in Sierra Leone for two months, and things are not going well. Plagued by mysterious allergies and a series of tropical illnesses and trying unsuccessfully to broker a peace between her embattled husband and son, Ann is desperate to heal herself and her family. Richard, unable to tolerate Torquil’s behaviour or continue feigning sympathy for Ann’s ailments, takes solace in the satisfaction of practicing tropical medicine–but a mounting conflict with his colleague threatens to put an end to that. Meanwhile, Torquil—who hates Sierra Leone almost as much as he hates his father—has gone on a hunger strike in an effort to convince his mother to take him back to Canada.


As the story progresses, both the war and the family’s domestic hostilities escalate, and like their impossible-to-sell home, the dream of harmonious family life that it represented also proves itself to be a white elephant—something so dear that it becomes a burden.

Praise for White Elephant

“A remarkable debut. Catherine Cooper writes with the insight and humanity and wit of a seasoned storyteller, making us root for her characters even as they pave the way to hell with their good intentions, and showing us in their follies a mirror of our own.” -Nino Ricci 


“A thrilling and soulful journey...Catherine Cooper springs to literary life bravely, with a huge novel, sure to become a classic.” -Josip Novakovich

“An unflinching portrait of a family...White Elephant is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a compulsively readable work of art.” -Michael Redhill 


“[S]o deftly executed that it’s impossible to turn away.” -Toronto Star

“Who thought this was a good idea? Family falling apart in Canada decides the solution is to move across the world to a country on the verge of civil war. Things are not going to go well, and while the tension is a bit unbearable, it’s really hard to put this book down.” -49th Shelf

“[T]he author’s character development is impressive—subtle yet profound. As the novel closes, the Berringers’ strength as a family culminates in a page-turning conclusion. Alongside family dysfunction, White Elephant is packed with medicine, miracles, and exorcisms, which makes it a book about healing in any sense you can imagine.” -The Winnipeg Review

“White Elephant is a brilliant exploration of human nature and relationships.” -Atlantic Books Today

"You can't outrun who you are, but the unfortunate characters in Cooper's novel discover this too late on their sojourn to Sierra Leone. This compelling book is made all the more delicious by the author's refusal to make her characters not horrible, so that the whole thing has the effect of a train wreck. You absolutely cannot look away, and you're quite sure that they all had it coming anyway. It's kind of perfect." -49th Shelf

Nova Scotia author lands on short list for $40K prize (CBC News April 5, 2017)

Herbalists and Humanitarians (Canadian Literature Winter, 2017)

Review of White Elephant (The Winnipeg Review: August 22, 2016)

White Elephant Explores Familial War Zones (Atlantic Books Today: November 14, 2016)

Book Review: White Elephant By Catherine Cooper (I've Read This: July 14, 2016)

White Elephant by Catherine Cooper (Pickle Me This: June 28, 2016)

Catherine Cooper's White Elephant (Buried in Print: June 20, 2016)

Sometimes to Find Yourself You Have to Go Away (The Toronto Star: May 8, 2016)

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