‘Ape House’ by Sara Gruen

“If we could talk to the animals, just imagine it, chatting to a chimpanzee. Imagine talking to a tiger, chatting to a cheetah, what a neat achievement that would be,” Doctor Dolittle sings.

That famous veterinarian who could speak animal languages would find himself quite at home if he moved from the pages of children’s books into Sara Gruen’s “Ape House.”

Of course, John Dolittle was born from a writer’s imagination, and “Ape House” was inspired by real-world studies in which great apes communicate with scientists through American Sign Language and a system of lexicons.

Gruen, best known for the novel “Water for Elephants,” introduces readers to Bonzi, Sam, Mbongo, Makena, Lola and Jelani, all bonobos living at the Great Ape Language Lab. Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the lab, cares for the apes, observing and communicating with them through sign language.

After much work, reporter John Thigpen manages to gain entry into the lab for a human interest piece on the animals and scientists. He’s fascinated by the apes’ comprehension and by their obvious bond with Isabel. “Over the years, they’ve become more human, and I’ve become more bonobo,” she tells him.

What starts off as a human interest feature grows into a controversial story after animal rights activists bomb the lab. The explosion leaves Isabel severely injured, the bonobos in limbo and reporters scrambling to cover the story. Isabel’s only concern is the welfare of the apes, but no one seems to be able to tell her where they are. That is, until a reality television show featuring the missing bonobos makes ratings history.

Isabel’s determined to rescue her ape family, and her quest brings together a colorful cast of characters who will help reconnect her to the human world in this novel that’s engaging, yet not quite as emotionally moving as the best-selling “Water for Elephants.”

“Ape House” certainly mixes some strange elements: science, journalism, reality television. And it’s the authentic aspects of the novel that are fascinating. Gruen realistically portrays the current uncertain world of journalists and the baseness of television entertainment, but even more interesting are the bonobos. Gruen did research for the book at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where she herself communicated with the apes. Much of the novel is based on her real-life experiences.

Visiting the Trust must have been extremely exciting for Gruen for her enthusiasm translates throughout the novel and it is hoped will inspire readers to do their own research on great apes and how they have been treated by their human relatives.

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