Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
|Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy
|Summary: A completely gorgeous and tremendously affecting story about animal experimentation and family dynamics. Humour and poignancy combine to create a truly memorable story. Highly recommended.
|Date: January 2011
|Publisher: David Fickling
|External links: Author's website
Ben's thirteen and an only child. You'd think he was entirely used to being the centre of attention, then, wouldn't you? But this isn't really the case. Ben's parents are academics. His father is a fiercely ambitious behavioural psychologist and his mother is both completing her doctorate and acting as her husband's research assistant. Ben is used to coming second to the advance of science. He can cope with that. Usually. But then his parents up sticks and move him all the way across Canada. Why? Because his father's new university is prepared to underwrite his new project - raising a chimpanzee as human and trying to teach it American Sign Language.
So, Ben has not only left school and friends behind, he's being asked to accept a new baby "brother", and a new house that's going to be more of a laboratory than a home. You can't really blame him for feeling resentful, can you? But the chimp, Zan, chisels his way into Ben's affections. His infectious personality and ability to form genuine attachments soon turn him into a real member of the family, so far as Ben is concerned, at least.
Scientifically, though, things don't go so well. Arguments rage as to whether or not Zan is truly learning language and the experiment comes to an end. What then for the chimpanzee who was told to be human? And what then for the young boy being asked to give up a brother?
Half Brother is set in the 1970s and based on real research. Nim Chimpsky - you might not like the idea of such experiments, but you have to admit that's a funny pun - was raised in a human household, taught ASL, and eventually pronounced as having failed to learn language, just like Zan. I wouldn't consider myself a militant about animal rights, or even as particularly sentimental about animals, but I found this book incredibly difficult to read. Oppel makes it clear from the outset that the experiment isn't going to end well and I felt an ever-increasing sense of dread and pity as I read. Heartbreakingly, the flaws are clear to Ben - the not-particularly-academic, hormonal teenager - but not to his brilliant parents. Ben can see the contradictions and the cruelty as Zan is treated as a human one moment and an animal the next. His father sees only a test subject. His mother probably sees more, but indulges in handwringing self-justifications instead of facing up to things. They both spend most of the book utterly failing as parents, both for boy and chimp.
Because they are so close to humans, primates are endlessly fascinating to us. In many ways, such experiments are gross, tasteless, disrespectful distortions and abuses of another species. But despite ourselves, we want them to succeed. A chimp that could really talk? Wouldn't that be something? We say these things but if we are honest, there's a conscience on our shoulders that we should listen to.
Happily, Half Brother doesn't end in tragedy. Ben and Zan both find a way past the dreadful parenting and even Mum and Dad come good in the end. We needed this because parts of the book are absolutely heartbreaking. Even so, it's an utterly engaging read - about our treatment of animals, yes, but also about the teen condition, family dynamics, and about growing up - whoever or whatever you are.
My thanks to the good people at David Fickling for sending the book.
The Fourth Horseman by Kate Thompson also features children whose father is undertaking scientific research without regard to the effects on the family unit. If it's straightforward animal tales they're looking for, then Born To Run by Michael Morpurgo, a Black Beauty-style story about a greyhound, is just lovely.
You can read more book reviews or buy Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel at Amazon.com.
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