Walter and Judy Ribke, a married couple in 1970s rural Vermont, are deeply in love but infertility has rendered them unable to extend their shared affections into parenthood. Walt and Judy know they want to spend the rest of their lives together, even if they can’t conceive a child. Their love is deep and unchallenged by distractions, but they sense an absence in their lives that won’t go away. Out of this domestic dilemma, Colin McAdam builds a story that is tough to summarize without making it sound hokey, which A Beautiful Truth most definitely is not.
Through a chance circumstance, Walt reads an article on the discovery of language skills in apes and decides to fill the child-shaped hole in his and Judy’s life by adopting a chimpanzee. A small-scale property developer, Walt knows nothing about acquiring a chimp, so he begins his investigation at the most intuitive place he can think of: a travelling circus. There he meets a clown who works with a trained monkey and strikes a bargain with the man: the clown will procure an illegal baby chimp and deliver it for a very high monetary sum.
The exchange is superb: McAdam subtly plays off the situation’s absurdity with deadpan dialogue, leaving the clown unnamed for most of the scene. The trained chimp is also in the room with the two men, and McAdam conveys both the comfortable familiarity and alien quality of human-animal relationships, a theme he builds on throughout the novel. One of A Beautiful Truth’s main narrative arcs follows the chimp, Looee, as he moves through the simian stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
The Ribkes’ journey into interspecies co-habitation is paralleled by the story of Dr. David Kennedy, head of a chimpanzee research project at the Girdish Institute in Florida. Kennedy is determined to prove that chimps can not only learn basic language skills through the use of hand signals and visual cue cards, but are as inherently empathic and co-operative as their human cousins. McAdam follows Kennedy’s attempts to change the mindset of the larger research community, who question his radical conclusions about simian behaviour, and his struggles to maintain an appropriately scientific distance from his subjects. He also takes readers directly into the minds of Looee and the chimps at Girdish, evoking their inner lives through a creative mixture of English and an invented animal dialect.
McAdam moves the narrative through multiple points of view and radically different modes of consciousness without jarring the reader, creating a kind of choral effect that vividly dramatizes the novel’s key relationships and themes. He also avoids the pitfalls of anthropomorphism and clinical detachment when writing from the perspective of the chimpanzees, bringing their experiences alive with sensual detail and close attention to the struggles for security and status inside the colony.
Looee’s relationship with his human family is especially well done. McAdam transposes the more “natural” emotional relationships and alliances of the colony chimps with Looee’s strange hybrid existence (he dresses in human clothes and watches TV), showing that, like their human counterparts, apes largely define their conceptions of normalcy in relation to their environments.
Unfortunately, McAdam has a tendency to leaven his prose with stylistic tics borrowed from late Hemingway via Cormac McCarthy. Clichéd word constructions like “life-worn heart” are too often substituted for real character insight and original phrasing. Then there are sentences like this: “The World is surprised by her Apriling body, how a pale honeyed light can warm this air so sad.” Or this: “He named himself father and Looee son, and we can ponder the novels, cities and excuses based on the carriage of those words.” It’s hard to know what the intent is here, other than to upstage the narrative and remind the reader that this is a literary novel.
The real problem is the novel’s middle section, much of which squanders the momentum built up by the opening scenes. McAdam detours into subplots that lack the immersive vividness of the two main stories. The scenes involving an ambitious politician who wants to change Vermont’s animal ownership laws doesn’t add much, and the storyline about workers at Girdish’s disease-research wing often read like summarizing non-fiction.
These lapses are frustrating in a novel anchored by so many excellent scenes, overall imaginative vision, and attention to language that puts a lot of contemporary fiction to shame. The closing scenes are powerful, the emotional catalysts well-earned. The journey to reach them is just a little too long.