I always have a pang of anxiety when picking up a novel about animals – though I can't locate any early Lassie overdose that might have triggered this anti-sentimentality.
But let's be clear from the start: Ape House is gripping, emotionally exhilarating and, by a large margin, the best novel I've read in the past 12 months. Or perhaps 24.
The apes in question are six bonobos (which are one of the two closest relatives to the human species) who inhabit the Great Ape Language Lab, a research facility in Kansas where Isabel Duncan, a Jane Goodall-ish primate devotee, has taught them American Sign Language so well that they can hold complex conversations. Despite the caring research environment, the facility has attracted an irritating cordon of protesters who seem weird but harmless – until the night that the lab door is blown off, nearly killing Isabel, and hooded raiders "liberate" the terrified apes.
What happens to the apes drives a twisting, pacy plot that barrels between investigative journalist John Thigpen and the fragile hopes of a recuperating Isabel that her missing apes will elude the horrors of vivisection. In a few maverick twists and turns, the plot detours through animal liberation terrorism and the cosmetic glamour of Hollywood screenwriting, before crashing into a bizarrely compulsive reality TV series launched by a porn baron.
Sara Gruen steadily ratchets up the pace of the narrative, but this novel's dramatic engagement is bound up in human relationships. Isabel copes with the serial treacheries of her own evolving situation, aided by the hacking skills of an intriguing posse of young assistants. But Thigpen is the real star. Ebbing in his support for his beloved wife Amanda's writing career, he also endures his snidely evangelical matriarch, while Amanda's domineering mother bustles in to expose her daughter's manifold failings, tidying relentlessly until even their sex toys are neatly sealed in Ziplocs. Gruen has a sitcom in the mothers alone.
Gruen's stunning previous novel, Water for Elephants, imminent as a film, followed a circus touring through Depression-era America. Its remorseless scrutiny of conflicted ambitions, pugnacious relationships and human-animal loyalties makes solid groundwork for this vivid page-turner.
She manages to capture the expressive qualities of animals in a manner that is sympathetic and unsentimental, wrapping them into a consuming plot that has a clear moral anchorage without being preachy. She's mining the same literary vein as Jodi Picoult and TC Boyle, two very differently regarded (but strikingly similar) US writers whose strong, conflicted characters and ethically charged plots deliver brilliant but challenging fiction.