Mourning isn’t only about losing a person you love—it’s also about losing a person you never had the chance to love. For Judy and Walt Ribke, the Vermont couple at the centre of McAdam’s novel, that person is their own child. After having a tumour removed, Judy is unable to get pregnant. She and Walt spend their days on charity and art and a dog named Murphy, trying to be rational and waiting for the despair to fade. But before they make it all the way through their grief, Walt sees a photograph of a chimpanzee in a diaper. Several weeks later, he and Judy drive to a park where a circus clown introduces them to Looee, a chimp from Sierra Leone. Looee reaches for Judy immediately, and once in her arms, he “nuzzles and squirms and settles.” Judy and Walt bring Looee back to their idyllic country home and pretend he is their baby.
Looee potty trains, learns to dress himself, eats at the table. He’s good with Murphy and a delight with children. He soaks up all of Judy’s nurturing and bonds with Walt over beer and fishing. But there are worrisome episodes. Looee runs away one night. He tries to feel up Judy’s friend Susan. On his way to knocking out a landscaper who laughs at him, he takes a run at Judy and bites Walt’s arm. Horror seems always on the horizon.
The tension is broken up by an alternate narrative, told primarily from the perspectives of apes that live in a research institute. The shift can be jarring; the voice isn’t tied to any one animal, and sometimes the sections read like an observation log. But gradually the chimps’ relationships gather drama and they also provide a reality check to Looee’s fairy-tale existence. Inevitably, the storylines merge, and while the plot begins to drag, the theme of mourning resurfaces. You can’t go around it, over it or under it, McAdam seems to be saying. To get to the other side, you have to go through it.
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