This post is part of the Hack Library School’s Library Student Day in the Life week. For those of you who are here because of that, thanks for visiting! I’m an online University of Maryland MLS student, the social media manager for UMD’s iDiversity organization and a library clerk on a public library’s reference desk. Come back every day this week to learn more about what it’s like to be a MLS student. And be sure to visit the LSDITL page for a list of everyone participating this week. And read all of my HLSDITL posts here.
I mentioned early that part of this blog revolves around book reviews. I know there are just too many book review blogs out there, and frankly book reviews don’t make up a huge portion of this blog. However, considering the fact that some of my job requires me to offer book recommendations to patrons, I view my blog’s book reviews as a chance for me to flex my skills at summing up the strengths of a book. Much of graduate school, especially online classes, requires me to look for any way that I can build my skills when my classes or my job do not offer the opportunity.
Plus, most book review blogs that I personally read don’t actually review any books that I would read. I read them to learn from well-written book review blogs, not to find my next great reads. With my Goodreads.com To-Read shelf consistently full of over a hundred books, I don’t need any help in that regard.
Part of my week, then, involves either reading or reviewing a book. Most reviews are at least two weeks apart, so writing them isn’t necessarily a weekly task, but it’s what I’m doing today, so here goes!
A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam is an especially fresh novel told in pieces from the perspective of chimps and humans in two settings, a private home in Vermont and a primate research facility in Florida. The concept was not one that I was expecting and I wasn’t even sure I would enjoy it, which is why when I saw it listed on NetGalley, I debated before requesting to get a preview. I am so glad I did.
McAdam masterfully weaves together perspectives, switching at times so seamlessly that I thought I would be confused, but I never was thanks to McAdam’s skill at language. His way of seeing how chimps would communicate to each other and to humans and, even, to themselves was beautiful. The plot involved a baby chimp adopted to take the place of the child a family in Vermont could never have and a growing and evolving family of chimps being observed by a scientist who finds himself worrying for each member as though he or she were his own family.
McAdam smartly reminds us how similar we are and yet how different, without trivializing either aspect. There are joyful moments and tragic moments, chapters that left me on the edge of my seat and passages where I had to put the book down because I couldn’t stand to read what would befall the characters next. I was both sickened and pleased by the actions of humans and chimps alike. And in the end, while McAdam reveals some particularly ugly moments in human interaction with our closest relative, he doesn’t directly pass judgment on the rightness or wrongness of either ways of interacting with chimps. He merely reveals certain truths and asks the reader to make the decision themselves.
McAdam grapples with the choices we make to lift up one another, grief, happiness, sacrifice, what we as a species do in the name of science and the similarities and differences between all beings. I’m going to share two passages that I think embody why I loved this book. The first is told from the perspective of Judy, the mother who couldn’t have children and instead adopted a chimp. This is further into the novel, when certain tragedies have occurred:
“She stayed positive. She lifted Walt’s chin. She felt pleasure in survival; not survival in terms of overcoming injury but survival as the process that few people notice and none can control, the hum of energy that fuels the machine. Survival isn’t always an act of will, and when she realized that, when she was carried through the years and felt healed, she began to see beauty in all those things we try to run away from. There was beauty in the loss of beauty, in loneliness, in sorrow, some inarticulate vitality that was greater than the celebrated signs of joy, a different joy not obvious but more constant. To see herself as a body in the mirror, death in the middle of life, was to see a beautiful truth. This is me and it is not how I see myself.”
The next passage is told from the perspective of a chimp while in the research facility, ruminating on what he has done that led him to the place.
“It accompanied whatever memories were left, it sat with him and settled through fourteen years and grew into a bone lying crosswise in his chest. No one loves this sun as much as the one who has been tortured. The sun and this apple are beautiful. The apple is in his hand, he can feel his hand and the sun. He is here. He eats the skin of the apple.”
See what I mean about knowing when the character speaking is a chimp? The chimps speak in short, simple sentences, making direct observations that are more deep than they originally seem. McAdam also made up some words for them (yek meant “newcomer,” for example), though, that tactic was unnecessary, in my opinion. I also think it somewhat diminished the beauty of those passages.
To be honest, it is difficult to compare this book to any other I have read. It is just so unique. But bits and pieces here and there reminded me of Ishmael and My Ishmael, if only because a primate is also the main character and it is the primates in all of these novels that reveal the truths we can’t always acknowledge about ourselves and our place on this planet. It’s definitely worth a read, and part of the proceeds go towards Save the Chimps, a chimpanzee rescue.