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book review

Author Colin McAdam in 2004.J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Colin McAdam's A Beautiful Truth attempts to shed light on the thin line separating human nature from animal nature. It is, in many respects, a novel of ideas, the most prominent of which is that humans and primates have far more in common than we would care to admit. This could be conceived as a simple premise on which to base a novel, and to a large extent A Beautiful Truth is inhibited by an unwavering commitment to it. But what the novel lacks in philosophical range and complexity, it certainly makes up for in narrative audacity.

For starters, the protagonist is a chimpanzee named Looee. As a baby, Looee is poached from a national park in Sierra Leone and sold to a farm near Freetown. He is subsequently sold from that farm to an intermediary – a circus clown – who in turn sells the baby chimp to a childless couple, Walt and Judy, who live in Vermont.

Walt and Judy, owners of a single dog, are not great animal lovers. They adopt Looee to fill a void in their lives after Judy becomes infertile. It's the early seventies. As the narrator puts it, "The laws about exotics didn't exist in those days." For more than a decade, Walt and Judy raise Looee like their own son, and much of the first section of the novel is composed of descriptions of their unconventional home life.

Walt, Judy and Looee share this first section with a subplot involving a colony of chimps living in a primate research facility in Florida. At the Girdish Institute, primatologists meticulously document interactions between the chimps, and so does our narrator. Frequently, we are taken inside their minds. During these instances of chimp thought, a foreign lexicon appears. The patient reader will eventually make connections. Yek, for instance, means a fellow chimp, and pokol means water.

In the chapters set at Girdish, McAdam's prose is simple and unadorned; one could also call it primitive. That he adopts a similar prose style in the chapters about Walt and Judy suggests that he is using style to further illuminate the commonalities between humans and primates. His similes serve an identical purpose in that chimp behaviour is often likened to human behaviour. Looee is struck by a painful memory "like an embittered woman remembers a ring decades after divorce."

In another scene, Looee moans "like a woman surprised by how good something feels." As for characterization, the humans are painted in almost as broad strokes as the chimpanzees. If these techniques reinforce the central idea of the novel, an unfortunate result is prose that grows repetitious over time, and a cast of human characters lacking in psychological depth.

When Looee is removed from the domestic bliss of his Vermont home and taken to the Girdish Institute, McAdam makes the bold and risky decision to all but abandon his human characters in favour of Looee and the colony. Looee undergoes a harrowing experience when he is leased to a series of pharmaceutical companies using chimps as medical research subjects. The medical research wing of the institute is described as a "perverse abattoir where the animals were efficiently denied their death."

This politically charged part of the novel is harrowing for the reader also. Most of us already know about the conditions of these laboratories, either from documentary footage or first-hand accounts: Chimps confined to tiny cages or strapped to beds while researchers inject them with strains of HIV. It all seems like something out of science fiction until you remind yourself that it's real.

In his sketch A Report to an Academy, Franz Kafka has a civilized ape address a scientific academy on the topic of his development from wild primate to assimilated member of society. Before he begins, he offers his audience a caveat: "Your own apehood, gentlemen, in so far as you have something of the sort behind you, cannot be further removed from you than mine is from me." Kafka's sketch is an enduring satire on the kinship between humans and primates. McAdam's novel is an earnest, daring and insistent attempt to show the moral implications of that kinship.

Rob Sternberg is a writer based in Toronto.

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