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Book review: A Beautiful Truth, By Colin McAdam

Hey hey, we’re all monkeys

The idea that humankind is in any way “above” the rest of nature has surely long been abandoned by anyone with a brain in his or her head. Recent research into primates has clearly demonstrated morality, self-awareness, and a social context to their existence as rich as any human community.

With that in mind this experimental, uneven novel, which seeks to demonstrate the similarities between humans and chimpanzees, feels a tad forced and heavy handed, and while there is undoubtedly some beautiful prose and real empathy involved in McAdam’s writing, there are also some rather less convincing elements.

A Beautiful Truth consists of two narratives intercut with each other. The first tells the story of Walt and Judy, a childless couple in Vermont who adopt a baby chimpanzee. Although the set up for this is rather ham-fisted, the story itself is told in robust, no-nonsense language, Walt’s and especially Judy’s love for the chimp Looee clearly demonstrated.

There is, of course, an in-built poignancy and melancholy to their story, Walt and Judy undergoing the emotional distancing of their “son” as he hits puberty at an accelerated rate compared to a human offspring. Despite many similarities to humans, chimps are strong, often violent beasts, and the threat of violence hangs over much of Walt and Judy’s lives.

Interspersed with this is the story of the Girdish Institute in Florida, an establishment built to investigate the behaviour of primates, which begins as little more than a glorified circus before becoming a serious scientific establishment then, sadly, succumbing to market forces and getting involved in often brutal biomedical research in the 1980s and beyond.

Much of the time spent at the Girdish Institute is told from the many points of view of a social group of chimpanzees, detailing the quotidian power struggles, petty grievances, sexual advances and so on. In comparison to Walt and Judy’s part of the novel, these sections struggle to come to life. Judging by his acknowledgements, McAdam appears to have done a lot of research into chimpanzees, especially in captivity, but these chimp-narrated passages continually jar and worse, they seem very inconsistent, drifting from highly eloquent to barely sentient in a few lines.

As the book progresses, the author expands out on his human society’s narratives, taking in various friends of Walt’s and Judy’s, as well as Dave, the chief scientist at the Girdish Institute. This is clearly done in an attempt to highlight the similarities between human society and chimp society – how we all suffer the same disappointments and grief, as well as enjoy the same simple pleasures, craving love, companionship and security above all. A fine enough sentiment, but it’s done in such a clunky manner that it only serves to negate McAdam’s admirable message.

 

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