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Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  468 ratings  ·  55 reviews
No one sees the world quite like John Gimlette. As The New York Times once noted, “he writes with enormous wit, indignation, and a heightened sense of the absurd.” Writing for both the adventurer and the armchair traveler, he has an eye for unusually telling detail, a sense of wonder, and compelling curiosity for the inside story. This time, he travels to Sri Lanka, a coun ...more
Hardcover, 1st American, 429 pages
Published 2016 by Knopf (first published 2015)
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Alasdair Martin Because it makes a compelling cover in order to sell the book, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest the author didn't come up with it. As the say…moreBecause it makes a compelling cover in order to sell the book, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest the author didn't come up with it. As the saying goes, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.(less)

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Average rating 3.90  · 
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Dec 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great. I read it twice. I am now a SriLanka bore.
Ella Wall
Apr 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An extraordinary book, by far the best I've ever read about this beautiful, magical, tropical paradise with its tragic, even sordid underbelly. I'm not a special fan of the travelogue, but Gimlette manages to capture Sri Lanka--its history, culture and peoples--in a way that constantly had me saying, "Yes, that's exactly the way I remember it!" or "I missed that. I must go back." Or in the case of Negombo, "I never caught a glimpse of the perversion. I can't believe a reputable tour company book ...more
Feb 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a good book. I hadn’t read Gimlette before and was afraid Elephant Complex was going to be in the white-guy-explains-Asia-with-a-smirk genre, but the voice is steady, and whilst Gimlette has an eye for the odd luminous detail he doesn’t try too hard to be funny. He’s all over the island, in Colombo and the Cultural Triangle and the other usual tourist spots and also in many places central, north, south, east, and west well off that grid. The writing is clean and straightforward and the o ...more
☼Book her,   Danno☼

I've read a good number of travel books. From my armchair I've mushed across snows, climbed Everest and K2, even descended into the bowels of the earth and trekked across Asia. This book by John Gimlette is unlike Krakauer's, Viesturs', Danziger's or even Sarah Marquis' journals.

Gimlette takes a different, more erudite approach. His approach is part history, part investigative journalism and part travelogue. I think in part he takes this approach because so many people are not up-to-date with th
Apratim Mukherjee
Big books take a lot of time(I attempted three times before to read it).Its taken me a month and at best I was not reading more than fifty pages a day.Finally,here the review.
The book covers the author's travels all over Sri Lanka but later on focuses more on the civil war and its aftermath.The big books have a lot of text.Hence,they have a few problems.First,is lack of photographs.Then,the author didn't really dive into the history of LTTE.If he was not doing that,he shouldn't have raised the i
Edoardo Albert
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Elephant Complex is the best contemporary account of Sri Lanka. There, that's short and to the point. If you have an interest in the country - and I have, since my father is Sri Lankan - then this book is required reading. It also has a secondary function, that I will concentrate on here, in detailing the sort of preparation, work and temperament that is required to make an exceptional travel writer, and John Gimlette is an exceptional travel writer. What makes him even better in this capacity i ...more
Zoe Johnson
Dec 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Loved the first 4 chapters - gave a fascinating and human insight into the years of destruction and death that has occurred in this beautiful country, and goes some way to explain the societal and behavioral nuances that exist in many communities across the country today.

However, about halfway in I started to struggle as it starts to feel a little gratuitous, and whilst I am happy for the author that he experienced such a colourful adventure throughout this enigmatic island, I found myself losin
Kim Elith
Jan 15, 2016 rated it liked it
Grimly fascinating account of this country and its dark ancient and contemporary history. Hard to imagine how much horror and trauma recent generations have lived through here when there is a veneer of incredible natural beauty everywhere we've been. I found myself bewildered by how this civil war unfolded and how there are clearly no good guys on either side. Glad I read it while traveling so my eyes were opened to the truth no one here wants to talk about.
Jack Laschenski
Sep 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Sri Lanka.

21 million people, half the square miles of New York State.

Island off the coast of India.

Beautiful geography.

Murderous people. Tamils and Sinhalese killed each other for 15 years.

Before that, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English murdered them.

Tourists come and don't care.

Fantastic book - the world is diverse,
Sep 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A beautiful (if a little heavy) book that is best read whilst travelling through Sri Lanka. Full of beautiful thoughts, the brutal history of the island is brought to life by his descriptive writing and I often found myself giggling at the quirks he pointed out that I also have already noticed and laughed when I experienced them later. A fantastic blend of travel writing and history.
Sarah Nichols
Oct 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is my first time reading this author, but I chose this book because I'm going to Sri Lanka soon and wanted to learn a little bit about the country. I was looking for a book that was informative, interesting, and didn't portray the country as an exotic wonder, but rather a book that journalisitically covered the areas of the country. This book delivers on all of those.

Gimlette, although not a native Sri Lankan, seems to really have done his research. Each section of the book is broken up int
Nathan Albright
Feb 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: challenge-2018
I am not unfamiliar with the author [1] thanks to being a fond reader of travel books.  Admittedly, Sri Lanka is not a nation I am familiar with myself [2], although my mum and stepfather did visit there one time.  Even so, like the author's other books I found much to appreciate here and much to think about and ponder concerning the complexities of Sri Lanka as a society in the face of its deep conflicts as well as its troubled and complicated history.  The author appears to be one who is not c ...more
Nov 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka is an unforgettable travelogue centred around a wide range of vignettes assembled by Gimlette as he travels around the country formerly known as Ceylon. Providing a wealth of information on the country's ancient history, colonial era and most especially its civil war, this book provides a great primer for anyone looking to visit the country and understand why it is indeed, paradise damaged.

While Gimlette's writing style does take some time to get used to, a
Meghan Murray
Apr 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel
Can I give this 4.5 stars? I really love John Gimlette's way with prose. His descriptors are other-worldly and imaginative: aging soldiers ridden with pock marks are boils are "barnacled," backhoes and tractors are "hulking crustaceans" in on a salty field (can you tell I'm drawn to ocean imagery? haha!). My favorite line, perhaps was this one: "The rain trees were dripping caterpillars and, in the canopy, thick clusters of fruit bats were slowly unbuckling themselves and flopping away across th ...more
Andrew Doran
Aug 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Read this before and during my holiday in Sri Lanka. Gives an excellent overview of the country and its history which reveals itself to the reader gradually, culminating in an account of the end of the civil war. The chapters are sequenced and themed in a general anti-clockwise journey around the island starting in Colombo/Negombo.

On my travels I met a scientist from England who said that he found this book quite dense; I was grateful to find that it wasn't just me who felt this! I think that th
Alasdair Martin
Jan 01, 2017 rated it did not like it
It's a dreadful bore, so much so, that in spite of my best efforts I can't bring myself to finish it. I picked it up for a pound in the bargain bin of a well known bookshop, taking a chance on something beyond my usual tastes, sadly I found it disappointing. The stories were dull and the book as a whole seemed to lack any discernible structure. I believe Sri Lanka is a fascinating place, the author however singularly fails to capture or convey the feel, the atmosphere, or the culture.

A series of
Jan 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read this before, during and immediately after my first visit of Sri Lanka. A beautiful travel journal focused on the island's history, this was a pleasant detailed knowledgeable resource; rarely have I had the opportunity to be so well (and enjoyably) informed for a trip. The book is wonderfully well written, the list of resources used for its completion vast.
Sam Davison
Oct 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Utterly absorbing perceptive book. He has been able to sift out the golden truths from the landscape and the people. I loved this book.
May 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017
John Gimlette is one of my favorite travel lit authors, and this book did nothing to change that opinion. He is insightful, objective and never dull.

So why only 3 stars? Perhaps because I did not feel this book was on the same level as At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig. I read that book more years than I care to count and it has remained with me to this day .... it changed how I thought of Paraguay completely. This book did not do the same for Sri Lanka. This could be because I had already read
Gaylord Dold
Mar 29, 2016 rated it really liked it
Gimlette, John. Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2016 (339pp.illus, maps, $28.95)

Master travel writer and London solicitor John Gimlette’s journey to Sri Lanka began with a modest bus ride from his home in southwest London, where nearby he tell us,
some 8,000 British Tamils live in Tooting, all originally from the town of Velvettithurai, and many of whom are members of tough urban gangs with names like “the Tamil Posse” or “the Jaffna Boys”. Unlikely as it sounds
John Benson
Jun 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
John Gimlette's travel books on Paraguay, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Guyanas of northern South America, really helped me understand those places well, both their histories and geographies. In the same way, he tries to make sense of what I think was his most complicated country to try and understand, Sri Lanka. As he traveled through the country, beginning in Colombo, then into the Sinhalese parts of the country, before finishing in the more devastated Tamil parts of eastern and northern ...more
Jul 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a disturbing book. On the one hand there are the descriptions of the lush vegetation, beautiful scenery, ancient cities etc, and on the other, the descriptions of the havoc and devastation wreaked by both sides of the violent and tragic civil war.

It was recommended to me by my sister who read it while travelling in Sri Lanka as preparation for a trip I am making there later in the year. It certainly gives me some insight into the country, but also leaves me with some disquiet regarding w
Sep 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel
It's hard to imagine a more informative travel narrative about a single country. Gimlette mixes his experiences traveling around Sri Lanka with a thorough (if not exactly systematic) explanation of the country's history. He's more interested in history than culture, really, so don't expect deep delving in that area; but the book is so information-dense already, you can hardly criticize it for that. The only thing keeping it from a 5-star rating is that the prose can be rather dry, making the boo ...more
May 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Low rating is perhaps more a reflection that I need to stop reading travelogue. Many of the reflections and conclusions on people, places and history felt superficial and thoughtless. Reading on a kindle without easy viewing of a map, I often found myself lost in both the history and geography. There is a series of photos/captions at the end of the book. It would be better if these appeared at the beginning.
Ian Hodkinson
Jun 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel
As a prelude to a planned trip to Sri Lanka I researched available travelogues and was pleasantly surprised to find one by John Gimlette. I'd previously read his excellent travelogue on Paraguay 'At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig' and I can report I was not disappointed by his more recent Sri Lankan offering. It's a comprehensive, historical and geographical account of the island and its people. Easy to read. I'd highly recommend this.
Dan Goeschl
May 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What’s Happening in Sri Lanka...?

The research that Gimlette put into this book prior to entering Sri Lanka was remarkably extensive, then, with boots on the ground and often in sticky situations, he went to locations or interviews to weave the histories, environments, policies and prejudices into an dystopian account of paradise gone horribly wrong, with the answer lost somewhere between ambiguity and denial, outright and otherwise
Sep 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
An exceptional book! Gimlette has an extraordinary insight into the Lankan psyche.
It's a very witty travelogue. A perfect read for when you're on a beach somewhere in the Deep South and need a nice light read.
Gimlette does thrust his opinions onto the reader, for me that is part of the charm. I enjoy reading a travellers view of my country. The little quirks adding immeasurably to the reading experience. It often gives me a new perspective on things I've seen a million times over!
Nov 06, 2018 rated it liked it
John Gimlette is a very funny, and intelligent writer. This book is for someone who really wants an indepth look into Sri Lanka- especially some of the less traveled places. A well written book, but often it was a bit more historically focused than I wanted. More of an informational book, instead of a light, holiday read.
Dec 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: e-read, travel-reads
Excellent book about a beautiful country with a rich and vibrant history but also a troubled history. This travel read may be beat read after a visit so the troubling recent history isn't in the forefront of your mind whilst there. Thoroughly recommended read form the traveller who's been to Sri Lanka or any history buff.
The Book Grocer
Aug 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An unforgettable travelogue. Grimly fascinating account of this country and its dark ancient and contemporary history. Paul, The Book Grocer

Purchase this classic here for just $10.00
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John Gimlette (born 1963) is an English author who specialises in travel literature.

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