Is it weird that this is not my first book about a family that lives with a chimpanzee as a sibling for research purposes? Yes. I think perhaps it is. I can’t even tell you the name of the other book, because the chimp angle of the story is a spoiler. Luckily, I read a lot of books, so it would be difficult for you to root that one out, even with the best deductive reasoning skills. So, here’s the thing, this new book made me even more uncomfortable than the last one. The topic of race provides the subtext for the book, except for the times when it is addressed directly and without pretense. I think I was supposed to feel uncomfortable reading this (and I was), but I will admit that understanding that made me feel a little manipulated. There are a lot of disturbing things going on in this family, and at times, the chimp in the room is the least of their problems. There is also the issue of selling out by serving up your family in exchange for a position and a new place to live, and then letting work come between you and your family in ways that I cannot begin to get into here.
This book begins as a kind of brave adventure, but it quickly degenerates into the unraveling of a family. There is a parallel narrative that provides the backstory and this one is even more disturbing than the one that takes place in the more recent past. The idea of chimpanzees learning sign language is not new or invented for the story – in fact, my quick googling showed research dating well before 1990 proving this was possible, but this only made me wonder why the author chose that particular time for what I thought was presented as a groundbreaking study. In hindsight, this seems odd to me, but maybe I’m overthinking it.
I do like quirky and odd stories, and this is certainly both of those things, but I have to be honest and admit I didn’t love this one. A big part of this has to do with the fact that the issue of race in the story was presented with the subtlety of a hammer blow to the head. At times, it read like an old-fashioned morality tale — and yes, there is no defense for the disrespectful, abhorrent way most white people in this story behaved. There is a lot of love out there for this book, so maybe it’s just me, but I’m not feeling it.