Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Beautiful Truth

The second book with a Vermont setting that I've read of late is A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam, which comes out in September. I received an advance copy at a literary fiction presentation that I attended at BEA this year. During the half-hour session, a handful of small, independent publishing houses and imprints each had five minutes to present one of their upcoming titles. I actually had to check my ears when the editor who spoke about A Beautiful Truth took to the podium and said "I know there are a lot of chimp books out there...". It wasn't until she said "chimps" a few more times that I felt confident that, yes, indeed, this is a book about monkeys. Apparently I've been ignorant of the primate micro-trend that's happening in the literary world. The presentation convinced me, though, and I left feeling sold on reading about chimps. Or, it might be more accurate to say, about chimps and the humans who love them.

The novel is told through two alternating narratives. The first follows a middle-aged couple in Vermont who are unable to conceive a child and so adopt a baby chimp named Looee to raise as their son. The second narrative is presented through the eyes of a group of chimps living in captivity at a research center in Florida. Both stories highlight the opposing natures within the chimps. At home in Vermont, we see Looee interacting with his parents in a very lovable, human way, but also giving in to his more wild, animal instincts. At the center in Florida, we watch certain chimps learn human language and communication skills taught to them by the researchers, but also see how they develop their own system of communication and code of conduct within their animal community. Eventually the two narratives intersect when Looee is sent to Florida after one of his animal impulses results in tragic consequences.

The presentation I heard at BEA emphasized the fact that this is a brutal book, but one that held up a mirror to the universal human condition. I certainly saw the brutal side of the book in the sense that it turns an unflinching gaze on the motives and behaviors of the chimps. They are not portrayed as cute, cuddly creatures. Some of the passages that describe their baser animal behaviors were uncomfortable to read. Even more uncomfortable were the details about the chimps' living conditions at the research facility, and the medical experiments that are conducted on them there. To call them harsh and ethically questionable would be an understatement. If McAdam was intending to balance this brutality by connecting it to larger human themes, I don't think succeeded. Although obvious parallels could be drawn between the lives of the chimps and the human condition, none of them were particularly moving or packed any emotional punch. Instead, what made a greater impression on me were a handful of annoying little details, like the fact that the possibility of adopting a human baby is barely considered by Looee's parents, dismissed in one afterthought-like sentence about how the process of adopting a child was too long and complicated. Surely anyone willing to turn their lives upside down for a chimp might be willing to put their names on a waiting list for a while, no? It's not often that I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when reading a novel, but I just couldn't seem to manage it when it came to Looee's parents and I had very little sympathy for their storyline. I actually found the chimps' narrative to be more believable, and have to give McAdam credit for the unique language that he created for them. Disconcerting at first but easily understood by the end of the novel, the chimps' words and phrases are gradually absorbed by the reader in an experience that mimics what the chimps themselves go through as they are trained to communicate with humans. It's an interesting feat to pull off in a novel and definitely one deserving of praise, although it still might not be quite enough to make the book worth your time.


  1. I have noticed the trend of chimp books across age levels and am not really attracted to them - I've even wondered to myself what the fascination is! This one sounds interesting, but is maybe not the best of the bunch?

    1. I wonder what sparked the sudden trend? I didn't mind reading this one, but it hasn't left me wanting to see out others.



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