So many people remember reading, at one point or another, about Koko the gorilla and her ability to communicate with sign language.
Now Sara Gruen, author of the best-selling “Water for Elephants,” offers a tale that revolves around a family of bonobo apes and the animals’ ability to communicate in her fourth novel, “Ape House.”
We meet the family of six primates at a university lab, where scientists have helped them learn and communicate through American Sign Language. Isabel Duncan, whose life revolves far more around the animals than humans, is particularly devoted to them and very particular about whom she allows inside the lab to see the animals.
When two reporters and a photographer from Philadelphia make the journey to Kansas to see the work that is being done, only journalist John Thigpen is given access; his colleague and rival Cat Douglas has a cold. The apes are susceptible to human illnesses, Duncan explains. She adds, “over the years, they’ve become more human and I’ve become more bonobo,” a statement that helps set the tone for the story that unfolds.
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Hours after the reporters leave, the lab is firebombed and Isabel is left gravely injured. What’s worse, to her, is the eventual fate of the bonobos. An animal activist group claims to be the bombers and wreaks havoc on the home of the university president, who gives in and sells the primates.
Gruen’s wonderful sense of story leaves us rooting for the bonobos and hoping against hope that Isabel can find them before something goes so wrong it can’t be righted. And along the way, Gruen offers a peek into the world of journalism and ethics via the unscrupulous Douglas and the far more noble Thigpen and an excellent secondary tale in his troubled marriage.
If there’s one area of the story where Gruen falls a bit short, it’s in the relationship between Isabel and her fiance. What she finds attractive about him, other than his experience working with apes, is hard to pinpoint.
When the bonobos wind up on a reality TV show of sorts, Gruen paints a scarily accurate picture of how a show can capture the imagination of millions. The animals’ open sexuality titillates some viewers and offends others.
So of course, fans and protesters descend on the remote New Mexico town where the bonobos have been set up in a “home” of their own.
Gruen takes care with the little details with vivid descriptions of cost-cutting newsrooms, bargain-bin flights and meals grabbed on the run. And it’s those details that come together to tell a beautiful story of a woman who loves her family, and a man who loves his. Even if those families are not what we might define as traditional.