Ape House

{4.5/5} “He’d had a two-way conversation with great apes. He’d spoken to them in English, and they’d responded using American Sign Language… He’d looked into their eyes and recognized without a shadow of a doubt that sentient, intelligent beings were looking back.”

Ape House by Sara Gruen, published in 2010

This novel tells the story of a group of bonobos who use sign language. Their lab is bombed and the bonobos are “liberated.” They eventually end up in a reality TV show called “Ape House.” The novel is also the story of Isabel Duncan, a scientist who works with the bonobos — she will do everything she can to get them back. And it’s the story of John Thigpen, a journalist who comes to the lab to meet with Isabel and the bonobos, and his wife, Amanda, who’s a writer having trouble getting her second novel published.

What are bonobos? They are the least known species of great apes (the others are chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) but the closest to humans in terms of behaviour. They look similar to chimpanzees and the only place they live in the wild is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Can bonobos really use sign language? If this sounds like science fiction, it isn’t — all of the actions of the bonobos in this novel are completely realistic. Great apes have been using sign language (as well as other forms of language) since 1960. If you don’t know about this, you could read my essay on the subject.

The book is a fast read. You will find out some things about bonobos but these facts are integrated into a fast-paced story. You will care about what happens to the bonobos, as well as Isabel, John, and Amanda. As someone who has an interest in apes I was a tiny bit disappointed there wasn’t more of a focus on the bonobos, but it’s still a great story.

I’d heard of Gruen’s other novel Water for Elephants but didn’t know anything about it. I will seek it out one of these days.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 26th, 2012 at 10:10 pm and is filed under Reviews of books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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