The third novel by Colin McAdam, the Canadian author of Some Great Thing and Fall, would seem unlikely to trigger searing emotion followed by searching introspection. The story springs from propositions known to be factually accurate: Genetic and behavioral similarities between humans and other great apes, such as chimpanzees, outnumber differences; an instinctive need for companionship governs both our and their lives; and divergent expressions of this common need stem from differing methods of socialization. Yet A Beautiful Truth manages to parlay long established and widely disseminated scientific and anthropological facts into gripping and thought-provoking fiction.
In 1972, Walt Ribke of Vermont reads an article in Life magazine about primatologists in Oklahoma teaching sign language to chimpanzees. (This real-life article brought short-lived fame to a chimpanzee named Lucy). Walt is inspired to procure infant male chimp Looee from West Africa for his infertile, despondent wife Judy. Alongside this portrayal of an unconventional family in rural Vermont, McAdam depicts the (fictitious) Girdish Institute near Jacksonville, Fla., where primatologists study chimpanzee behavior. An omniscient narrator inhabits the minds of most characters, including Looee and the Girdish employees and chimps.
McAdam, who clearly conducted much research for this book — the Girdish chapters include academic asides, while Looee’s behavior seems partly based on Lucy’s — concedes that the mental capacity of a chimp is more limited than that of a human. Judy "couldn’t grow towards adult communion with [Looee] or share ideas as others did with normal children," McAdam writes. "But she was not as lonely as she would have been if she had never met him."
The author handles Looee’s post-childhood phase with tremendous sensitivity and doesn’t flinch from the uncomfortable subject of his sexual maturation. Growing up around humans with no chimpanzees around, Looee feels attracted to women. He has no sexual outlet other than masturbation.
In a mark of self-assuredness, McAdam refrains from downplaying chimps’ occasional violence. Following a particularly shocking and ferocious event, Looee is trundled off to Girdish. Unbeknown to Judy and Walter, Girdish is now focused on HIV-related biomedical experimentation, leasing out chimps to pharmaceutical companies. The institute is now "a perverse abbatoir where the animals [are] efficiently denied their death." Looee’s subjection to monstrous torture as he pines for his human parents and his old life will overwhelm the most stouthearted of readers.
Such material could have felt slightly manipulative. Yet the author adds another dimension to his story when, many years after Looee’s arrival, Girdish ceases biomedical testing. The institute places Looee in its jungle-like enclosure, among chimps that haven’t undergone experimentation. He recovers somewhat, though his "better health and less constant fear of pain have made more space in his days for remembering."
McAdam seems determined to impart the notion that Looee’s life among the semi-wild chimps at Girdish, which resembles the environment he was born into in Africa, isn’t a reversion to a state less advanced than what he experienced with Judy and Walt. Indeed, A Beautiful Truth is not Flowers for Algernon with a chimpanzee. Looee’s new world simply differs from his older one. And he must familiarize himself with the chimps’ ways. "Some of their customs will be forever foreign to him," McAdam writes. However, in a bittersweet twist to this depressing but wise and edifying tale, a battered Looee reattains a semblance of happiness.
Rayyan Al Shawaf is a writer in Lebanon.