A Beautiful Truth
By Colin McAdam
Hamish Hamilton, 304 pages, $30
ONTARIO literary writer Colin McAdam's compelling third novel manages to be both violent and loving, eloquent and non-verbal. Which is apt for a book that features an ensemble cast of humans and chimpanzees.
Those readers shuddering at the prospect of another "animal novel" can rest assured. Like Newfoundlander Jessica Grant in 2009's Come, Thou Tortoise, and Toronto's Barbara Gowdy in her 1999 elephant novel The White Bone, McAdam rises to the challenge of writing across the species barrier, where before he'd settled for crossing class lines and the gender divide.
Rather than two or three main characters, for instance, here there are almost a dozen major and minor characters. The humans include Walt, a developer who adopts a baby chimp, David, a scientist conducting ape research, and Mike, an ambitious local politician who has an instinctive dislike of chimps.
The first half of the book is largely spent in the humans' heads, mostly with the easygoing Walt, as is evidenced by the novel's plummy opening sentence:
"Judy and Walter Walt Ribke lived on 12 up-and-down acres, open to whatever God gave them, on the eastern boundary of Addison County, four feet deep in years of rueful contentment."
McAdam has the childless couple rationalizing their decision, first, to import an exotic animal, and then, a dozen years later, dealing with the inevitable results.
By the time we're two-thirds of the way in, McAdam is narrating almost entirely from the point of view of the chimps, who are housed in different sections of a biomedical facility.
And as one of them, Looee, is dosed with antidepressants and anesthetics, and exposed to a variety of illnesses, we know there is no going back for either Walt or Looee.
The narrative complexity doesn't detract from McAdam's biggest strength: portrayals of ardent but bashful men who find themselves on the cusp of, and then in the middle of, episodes of violence.
And, like his previous novels, A Beautiful Truth is difficult but not dreary, because McAdam always carefully acknowledges that consensus and communion are possible.
He has even invented a word for the experience of these states, used in the chimp sections: "oa."
It is this kind of inventiveness with language, as well as McAdam's use of short, one-paragraph sentences, mimicking the keyed-in exchanges between researchers and subjects, that makes these sections especially effective.
McAdam has drawn on the results that came out of the first ape studies in 1960s and '70s, specifically the Nim Chimpsky and Washoe Projects. He also spent time observing apes at the Fauna Foundation, a Canadian chimpanzee sanctuary based in Chambly, Que.
Are there beautiful truths at the centre of A Beautiful Truth?
Many of us know that it is dangerous to try to make a child out of a chimpanzee. But what does it say about us that, like Walt and Judy, many pet owners describe themselves as "parents," and that doggy daycares cost more than human ones?
What does it say about us that we confine our closest relatives to zoos and research facilities?
Finally, what does it mean to be human? Are language and functional vocal cords the only things that separates us from dolphins and elephants?
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.