Saturday, September 3, 2011

Review-- Ape House by Sara Gruen

Title: Ape House
Author: Sara Gruen
Published: 2010

Why I picked it up: I was a big fan of Gruen's Water For Elephants so when I stumbled across this one in the library I knew I had to pick it up. The back cover features positive reviews from authors and big name researchers of primate socialization and I thought that was an interesting combination. Factually accurate AND an entertaining piece of fiction? Innnnteresting.

What it's about:  Part mystery, part critique of American fascination with reality television, part Discovery Channel special, Ape House is the story of six bonobos (a species of high-functioning great apes) who have developed the ability to communicate with humans through sign language and a complex pictographic system as a result of their time at the Great Ape Language Lab. The apes, along with their human trainer/researcher Isabel Duncan, are breaking boundaries of inter-species communication and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen can't wait to dig deeper into their incredible story. Shortly after John's interview with Isabel and the apes, however, the Language Lab falls victim to a horrific bombing and the story takes a more sinister turn. An Animal Rights group claims responsibility for the act and for subsequent acts of domestic terrorism with the aim of shutting down the Language Lab and 'liberating' the bonobos. With Isabel in the hospital recovering from the bombing and John halfway across the country, the Language Lab is shut down and the apes are sold off to a mysterious bidder. A few weeks later the bonobos resurface as the stars of a new reality tv show (the Ape House) that promises to push the boundaries of taste and figure out how far, exactly people will go in their drive to consume all things unscripted. With the entrance  of a teenaged green haired militant who may or may not have ties to John's past, a group of unruly strippers, a television producer with no morals, and a drooling pit bull named Booger, Isabel and John soon find that their quest to free the bonobos will take them down paths they'd never expected.

What I thought: I'm really torn about this book. On the one hand, the bonobos made for fabulously engaging characters. Each ape had a unique and developed personality (Mbongo-- the prototypical 'middle child'/sulking adolescent-- was particularly well drawn. I wanted to give him a hug and a cheeseburger (his favorite food) every time he showed up. The majority of the apes' dialogue came directly from transcripts of Gruen's visits to the Great Ape Trust complex in Iowa so I was fascinated by the complex thoughts and logic systems they demonstrated. The ape's characterization raised some great questions about Animal Rights and capabilities (one of the most interesting questions came up when the senior male ape-- Sam-- identifies the bombing culprit. Could Sam testify in court? He has the ability to communicate and he was an eye witness to the crime... can we call him to the stand?).
I was less impressed with the human characters as they're considerably more two dimensional than their bonobo partners. I was also turned off by the pacing of the second half of the book. Once John and Isabel arrive at the set of the reality tv show things start happening really really quickly and the narrative gets choppy and overworked. Too many dramatic plot elements (a random exploding meth lab? What?!)  and not enough reflection for my taste.

I'd give the book a 3/5, but would recommend it whole-heartedly if you're looking for an entertaining but educational look at the social lives of great apes and their uncanny similarities to those of their human cousins

1 comment:

  1. I loved Water for Elephants too but have been worried about reading this one. From your review, I feel that I may also struggle with it. I hope to check it out sometime, but after lowering my expectations.