Friday, November 22, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam came recommended in my library’s new fiction newsletter. Although it had a ring of "contemporary relationship novel" to it–not my usual cup of tea– the relationships were unique enough to catch my interest and I requested the book.

The premise, as I understood from the blurb, was that a chimpanzee, raised by humans, must inevitably be sent to a primate research facility where he would not be able to fit in among his own kind because he had been raised as a human. It would be a story of love, loss, and loneliness, but the twist to make it interesting would be its unusual protagonist. I approached the read with some trepidation because I expected it to be emotionally brutal. However, I didn’t find it draining; instead, it was emotionally rather flat. Other readers have certainly not had that reaction to the book, but I just never did connect with any of the characters, human or chimpanzee.

Walt and Judy are an affectionate Vermont couple who discover that they cannot have a baby. Judy is devastated. Walt wants only to see Judy happy, so he manages to acquire a baby chimpanzee for her through means that are shady although not exactly illegal. They raise the chimp as a son, not a pet, naming him Looee. They understand that he is not human, but they expect others to treat him as a part of their family. As Looee grows older and larger, even they have to come to grips with his alarming strength and disruptiveness, so they build a concrete addition to their own house so that Looee can have a place of his own. They spend time with him, but increasingly need time for themselves.

Interspersed with this family drama, there are alternating chapters taking us to a primate research facility in Florida. The facility has started as a center for research on primate behavior and psychology. The director worked with language and had taught two of the chimps to recognize symbols for words and even to form sentences to communicate. The book takes us into the heads of the chimps, particularly Mr. Ghoul, one of the chimps involved in the original set of experiments. The author puts words (some made up) into Mr. Ghoul’s head –what he thinks the chimps would be thinking. It’s more or less convincing–convincing to me, but I’m a human. What do I know about what a chimp would actually be thinking?

Over time, the facility grows. Its focus expands. There are more chimps with Mr. Ghoul and the director stops trying to get them to communicate with people and now simply studies how they interact with each other. In other areas of the facility, medical testing is going on.

Eventually, Looee outgrows his Vermont family. He has become dangerous. The only solution is to send him to a place that knows how to house chimps in a way that is safe for humans. Looee is sent to Florida.

It’s a long hard road for Looee. It’s not a pleasant situation for any of the chimps. (Understatement. A section of the book is given over to moralizing about the inhumanity of medical research on animals.) It’s not particularly pleasant for any of the humans in the book either. While I found the whole thing a curious and interesting exploration of the various "what-ifs?" I’m not sure, at the end of it all, what the author’s "beautiful truth" was supposed to be. That we are not so very different from chimps? It isn’t exactly a revelation.

1 comment:

  1. I had trouble getting into this book and ended up not finishing. I'm not sure I even made it halfway through the book. Unlike you, I was intrigued by the premise, but like you, I could make no connection with the characters. Thanks for confirming that this is one book I don't need to go back and finish.