In 1973, thirteen-year-old Ben moves with his family to Victoria from Toronto. He not only has to deal with leaving his friends behind and moving to a new city and climate, but he has a new little brother. His new “brother” Zan is a chimpanzee, taken from its mother when it was only days old and brought to Ben’s house to be part of an experiment conducted by both of his parents in whether chimps can learn language and how being raised as a human child will affect him. At first, Ben is caught up in his own teen concerns: a pretty girl and how to be an alpha male in his new school. But slowly he warms to Zan and eventually grows to consider him a real sibling. As Zan learns to sign and communicate, the divisions between his parents’ two approaches become magnified and their approaches to parenting Ben as well. All too soon, Ben is forced to confront the truth about the experiment and its result. The question will be answered, what kind of brother will Ben be to Zan?
Oppel really had his work cut out for him here. Bring the 1970s to life with all of its unique perspectives and style plus write a convincing teen boy character and finally create an animal character that rings true. And he manages it all with great style. The time period is deftly created from small touches, never hitting readers over the head with it. Ben is a boy who is easily related to by readers. He struggles in school, would rather be with his friends or outdoors, and has a big crush on a girl. At the same time, he makes classic mistakes with the girl, frustrates his parents, and gets in plenty of scrapes. Nicely, Ben’s crush echoes what is happening with his father and the experiment. He’s not a perfect hero, but because of that he reads as a real person with plenty of emotional depth.
Zan, the chimp, is a wonder of writing. By turns he charms, aggravates, frightens, bites, mauls, tantrums, and adores. He is never written as a human child, never given human emotions. Oppel never loses sight of the fact that Zan is pure animal, that loss of perspective is left to Ben.
The book is deep and haunting. At times even before things unraveled, I read it with a pit in my stomach, knowing that something was going to unravel the Eden that was being portrayed. It is a book that explores experimentation on animals, what makes us human, what the animals in our lives mean to us, and what it is that connects us all to one another. It is a book of self exploration, the clarity of comprehension despite the pain, and what one must lose to do right by those we love. In short, it is a glory of a novel.
A great read that is impossible to set aside, this book will stay with you long after you finish it. If you are like me, you will finish it with deep gasping breaths, tears and great satisfaction. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.