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Monkeying with our minds

Powerful novel about family tragedy could change the way we think about chimpanzees

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California writer Karen Joy Fowler's new novel could do for chimpanzees' lives in North America what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did for pesticides.

Carson's book, published in 1962, is widely credited with sparking the environmental movement. Fowler's latest novel -- a step away from her usual fare of science fiction and fantasy and historical fiction, most noteworthy the 2004 bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club, later a hit movie -- will open the eyes of a public largely ignorant of just how fine is the line between humans and chimps.

Her story of the Cooke family will open those eyes to the horrors of how we use chimpanzees, whether that's in show business or scientific experiment.

Fowler's work follows a rash of books about monkeys: Marina Chapman's The Girl With No Name, a memoir about her Colombian childhood, spent as an abandoned orphan dumped in the jungle who survived by eating the leftovers of a troop of monkeys; Neil Abramson's Unsaid, which features a chimpanzee with the vocabulary of a four-year-old; Canadian Colin McAdam's novel A Beautiful Truth, about a couple who adopts a chimpanzee; and Andrew Westoll's The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, an account of a Quebec institute that cares for chimps that have survived lab experiments.

This sudden interest in chimpanzees follows the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, a manifesto signed in 2012 by international scientists, stating that "non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states."

But We Are All Beside Ourselves is as much about how the Cooke family is affected by their connection to the chimpanzee world as it is about the way chimpanzees are affected by their connection to the human world.

It starts as the story of a seemingly average, middle-class American family -- starts in the middle of their tale, as narrator Rosemary, the Cooke family's youngest daughter, explains in the prologue.

The story then springs toward the end, then back to the beginning, back and forth, finally exposing the secret that makes the family different. It's a style that ought to confuse; perhaps in a less skilful writer's hands it would.

But Fowler is a powerful storyteller who beautifully captures Rosemary's voice at all stages, from about age four to adolescence, through college to adulthood. She carries us along the convoluted meanderings as Rosemary regains some of her childhood memories. This is a family tragedy, but the storytelling, like all good family stories, is funny and sad, warm and cruel.

Once the family's secret is exposed, it's clear Fowler's set-up is the only way to prepare the reader to accept it.

No amount of sternly worded spoiler alert could possibly excuse a reviewer destroying the jolt the secret wields, a jolt needed to catapult the reader into understanding what makes this family so different.

What can be said is that Rosemary talked incessantly as a child. But as we meet her in college, she has wrapped herself in silence, shutting out her psychology professor father and her mother, an academic who is also a shell of her former self.

It's a mystery how and why sister Fern disappeared 17 years before, as did big brother Lowell seven years after that. We do know the FBI is on Lowell's trail for domestic terrorism.

There are parallels to Fowler's life, although it's unlikely the story is autobiographical. Her father was a psychologist who worked with rats, not monkeys.

She studied at Berkeley in the '60s, a time when the FBI kept a close watch on student unrest, and was an antiwar activist herself. She did grad work at University of California, Davis, where Rosemary studies, the campus chosen because the FBI reported her brother was last seen there.

In the end, Rosemary, named for the fragrant herb that stands for remembrance, pieces together the whole story as she recovers memories and fathoms their significance.

Once she's put it all together, she doesn't put it to rest. Instead, she takes action, action that, as recounted in this intelligent story, just might spark a movement that will change humans' relationship with chimpanzees.

Julie Carl is the Winnipeg Free Press associate editor, reader engagement.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 G5

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