Genre: Literary Fiction, Family drama
Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological
Synopsis: Rosemary Cooke no longer talks very much and has difficulty connecting with people. Her brother is on the run and she hasn’t seen her sister, Fern, since they were quite young. She has no idea where either of them are. Her parents are equally traumatised by some event in their past. Rosemary needs to find out what happened to Fern if she is to come to terms with the past.
It took a little while for me to get into this book and that is the main reason that I didn’t give it five stars. Rosemary is emotionally distant from the other characters and it is hard for the reader to get close to her as well. I couldn’t imagine that her story was going to become all that interesting.
Although there are hints, I didn’t guess that Fern was a chimp – and I managed to avoid any spoilers – and initially, I felt a little cheated but this was definitely the point where the story took off for me. I did psychology at A Level and also a little at degree level so I was familiar with a lot of the experiments that are mentioned in the book. When I was doing my A Levels, I was fascinated by the work done trying to teach chimps to sign and the comparison of a human child and a young chimp here was equally fascinating.
The traumatic event of the past was the sudden removal of Fern from the family. Rosemary eventually comes to terms with her own role in Fern’s sudden departure but not before we have seen exactly how strange the relationship was, both for Rosemary and for Fern. It is hard to imagine that these sort of experiments were allowed to take place but as the excellent documentary Project Nim shows, they definitely did, with scant regard for chimp or research students.
Rosemary’s brother discovers where Fern is and tries to visit her but instead becomes involved in animal rights activism as a result of seeing the cruelty with which she is treated. The scene where she recognises him and refuses to let him go was heartbreaking and one of the best moments in the book.
There are a couple of moments where the plot doesn’t entirely convince – the brother’s reappearance for example, but for the most part this was a strong and emotional piece of writing that I couldn’t put down.