For more than a century, humans have recognized the intelligence of apes and tried to communicate with them on human terms.
Recent attempts use sign language and computer assistance, and language research has found that not only can chimps and bonobos (great apes closely related to chimpanzees) carry on rudimentary exchanges with people, but they can spontaneously express new phrases using existing signs.
Ape communication and what it means to humans is at the center of Sara Gruen's new novel, "Ape House." The author of the wildly popular "Water for Elephants" sets this book in the present, starting at a research center at the University of Kansas.
Isabel Duncan is in charge of a bonobo communication project, and has immersed herself in the work to the point where she feels that the six bonobos she works with are family. The lab is bombed, apparently by a shadowy group of animal-rights extremists, and Isabel is seriously injured. By the time she's well enough to ask after the bonobos, they're gone. Aided by a lab assistant, Isabel works to track them down, only to find that they've been made the stars of a reality TV show.
Meanwhile, a newspaper reporter who had visited the apes in Kansas right before the bombing has lost his job, begun work for a Los Angeles tabloid and picked up the story again. They converge in New Mexico, where the apes' show is recorded. The reality show is in ratings trouble because there's too much sex and not enough violence — a fact that says more about humans than it does about apes.
The plot of "Ape House" is nothing short of riveting — this was a tough book to put down. This makes up for the fact that the characters are a little one-dimensional — the villains are Evil and heroes are Saints, and there's not much in between. There are a few supporting characters tossed in to show other sides of the main characters, but the book is at its best when the people are talking with the apes.
Gruen did extensive research at a primate language lab in Iowa much like the fictional KU one depicted in the novel, and she skillfully captures the magic of connecting with another species and the resulting questions about what it means to be intelligent — and what it means to be human.
“Ape House” by Sara Gruen (Spiegel & Grau, 306 pages, $26)
If you go
Sara Gruen book-signing
What: Reading and book-signing by Sara Gruen, author of “Water for Elephants” and “Ape House”
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 200 N. Broadway
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $28, includes a copy of “Ape House” (one additional ticket may be purchased for $10). Available at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas. For more information, call 316-682-1181.