Book review: A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

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On a recent trip to Edinbugh Zoo we stopped for a while to watch a group of capuchin monkeys in their enclosure. They were a comical, cheeky and animated bunch.

A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

Granta, 304pp, £12.99

One youngster was trying to climb up to high ledge only to have its bigger cousin push him off repeatedly as soon as he did. A baby clung to the back of its mother, a faraway look of contentment on its face as she wandered idly snacking on fruit. A bigger monkey, cradling a youth in his arms, began humping the tiny creature in an overtly sexual manner. The humans on the other side of the glass squealed in surprise, and one joked that maybe this was a case for social services to investigate.

Primates are undeniably like us, and just how much so is the subject of the new novel by Colin McAdam, inset. Its lead character is a chimpanzee called Looee. His mother having been killed by poachers in Africa, he is transported to the US through a murky network of traders and adopted by Walt and Judy, a childless couple in the Midwest who raise him like a son.

In a parallel story is a group of primates at the Girdish Institute, overseen by David Kennedy, an idealistic primatologist. But the narrative doesn’t just show humans interacting with primates. Inventively, McAdam, gives them a narrative voice and point of view.

At first the effect is jarring. McAdam has had to create a new language. In McAdam’s primate world, water is pokol, and something to be feared. Sexual congress is the oa.

The language throughout is often pared down, perhaps to reflect the animals’ less complicated minds, though motivation is still described. It is unusual, sometimes irksome, but eventually compelling as it gets to the heart of describing the complex politics of the monkey clan. Thus, in the ape enclosure:

“Fifi rests on Podo’s lap but it irks him. He flicks her off and she arples and fleps and goes elsewhere to eat her peaches.

“Mr Ghoul sees his opportunity.

“Fifi feels the pebbles on her back, looks up and sees Mr Ghoul in the tree. He drops another pebble which lands on her shoulder. She understands.”

This mode of observation is also used to reflect the behaviour of the humans whose motivations are sometimes more complex.

“Susan was friends with Cindy, and while Susan was not, in Cindy’s mind, assured of escaping damnation, she believed in an eternity blanched and rich as cream where understanding would land like a feather on skin and her faith was so strong she was breathless some nights. Susan just wasn’t sure that her friend Judy was spending her days as she should, and was really, frankly, afraid of seeing her with that chimpanzee.”

It is the 1970s. At Girdish the thinking is influenced by the father of ethology Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris’s bestseller, The Naked Ape, which compares humans as a species to primates.

For Walt and Judy, Looee comes as a shock to their friends and neighbours, who have never seen a live ape.

The divide between the animals and humans is laid bare as the novel progresses. At the institute, trends change. Studies of primate language acquisition are dismissed and abandoned. In Vermont, a disaster befalls the family when a growing chimpanzee raised as a son acts out his true nature.

The disgraced Looee is taken to the institute, now focused on medical research testing drug treatments for HIV and other diseases on primates. The novel takes on a political charge, and we see the harrowing series of events through Looee’s eyes. The cruelty of how these animals – so like us but yet so different – are treated is made clear.

So what is the beautiful truth? That love can cross the boundary of species? That primates can learn from us, and us them? In an interview in his native Canada, McAdam explained how in doing research for the book he spent time at a primate sanctuary, home to chimps used in biomedical research, many of whom had been raised in family homes when they were small.

He said: “It was just such a life-changing experience to meet them. It’s hard not to sound flaky when I talk about it, but I drove away from the place and everything had changed.”