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The Independent Culture
2 Theory of Mind by Sanjida O'Connell, Black Swan pounds 5.99.

Here is a first novel for people who like lots of ideas niggling in their fiction. Sanjida O'Connell, who is also a science writer and television producer, doesn't so much cast a spell as fit out the reader with lab-coat and clipboard.

Her heroine, Sandra, is studying chimpanzee behaviour at a zoo in the Midlands to determine whether the animals can feel empathy. She is engaged to a television producer, Corin, who seems to be doing less well in this department than the chimps.

By empathy Sandra means more than compassion or pity: rather it is possessing "theory of mind", the capacity to understand that other individuals have thoughts and feelings. The novel shows us curious gradations of empathetic ability. The gibbon-keeper's son, Paul, suffers from a variation of autism called Asperder's syndrome, which makes him like an intelligent automaton, able to learn empathetic behaviour through his intellect but also to be engaged in a secret, ritualistic and cold-blooded science project, which injects a chilling boost of suspense.

Sandra's colleague Kim is developing non-human automata: predator robots she provides with killer instincts and house-cleaning robots who appear to require selfish motives to do anything "altruistic". While Sandra was originally attracted to fiance Corin "because he was like a comet" - all whoosh and dazzle - she also feels drawn to the hairier, more earthbound keeper Ryan, who empathises so much with animals he is actually an infiltrator from AZA, the anti-zoo army, some of whose methods, he is beginning to realise, defy reason altogether.

There is nothing cuddly about the scenes in this zoo: in fact, grizzly behaviour across the species - including homo sapiens - is the order of the day. By juxtaposing human and animal incidents so skilfully, O'Connell brings an unsettling dimension to her drama. It is Sandra's view that nature is "raw and cruel and ultimately amoral", and her professional skills lap intriguingly over into her personal life. She is a trained as well as a compulsive observer, who gravitates towards the flamboyant of the species: if she says that seeing Corin makes her heart race, you can be sure this is no romantic cliche - she has probably measured it.

Maggie Traugott