03 January 2011

Book of the Week (83): "Half Brother" by Kenneth Oppel

Ben has just turned thirteen, and he’s trying to build himself a new life. His parents have just moved the family away from Toronto, out west to Victoria, he’s starting in a new school, trying to make new friends, and to attract the attention of the gorgeous Jennifer. Everything is new and difficult. His grades at the posh private school where he’s been sent aren’t shining, and he isn’t naturally the class alpha-male, either.

So it doesn’t help matters that his university professor father has just decided to adopt a new baby for the family, and that the baby – Ben’s sort-of-brother – is a chimp. His name is Zan. Ben’s parents hope to be the first to raise a chimp as though he were a human and teach him to communicate in sign language. Not surprisingly, many people are excited at the idea of this experiment – some (scientists, the media) are very enthusiastic, some (animal rights protesters) are very critical; and everyone is watching closely to see how the experiment goes…

But for Ben it’s more than just an experiment. At a time when he is learning about life, trying to learn his own way in the world, he’s faced with a situation where he and his family and friends are forced to question what it means to be human, and what’s really best for the little chimp he has come to love almost like a real brother. Is this strange set-up of theirs giving Zan a real home and a real family, or would he be happier if he were to be sent away somewhere to live with other chimps – or has Project Zan made him too human for that now?

It’s a really good premise for a book, but in the execution so much more than just that. It’s gripping storytelling by a really good writer at the top of his game – sometimes deeply touching (Ben and Zan’s relationship is extraordinary and extraordinarily drawn) and always thoughtful and thought-provoking – this is one I’m sure I won’t forget in a hurry.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

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