Sunday, February 13, 2011

Review: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

Read 2/5/11 - 2/13/11

4 Stars - Strongly Recommended

Well, there is one positive to calling out sick and feeling like death warmed over - and that is the ability to clock in uninterrupted "couch time", which allowed me to breeze through the final 150 pages of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore today.

One of the more talked about novels back in May 2010 during the BEA's, I managed to somehow walk right by this hefty novel without adding it to my many bags of books. Huge thanks go out to it's publisher, Twelve, for making a review copy available.

Prepare to be schooled by an ape. Bruno Littlemore - "Bruno I was given, Littlemore I gave myself" - narrates the story of his life from a jail cell. Yes, that's right. The book is cleverly narrated by an ape. And not just any ape. Our ape, Bruno, is capable of human speech. A bi-pedal ape who loves, longs, and lies just like a human. And has apparently committed murder in a fit of rage like one too.

Taken from his home at the Lincoln Park Zoo at an early age, Bruno finds himself the subject of many scientific behavioral test at the Erman Biology Center of the University of Chicago. Demonstrating a severe preference for human contact, Bruno quickly falls in love with Lydia - one of the research center's female employees. Just as quickly, Lydia discovers Bruno's ability to think and rationalize like a human and begins spending all of her time, and much of the center's money, teaching and developing Bruno's ever-evolving mind.

Told through the childlike mind of a chimp who speaks more fluently and scholarly than most humans I know, we are exposed to the many raw, graphic moments of his life. This ape, who believes himself human, who begins to live his life as a human, also begins a love affair with a human. I had to repeatedly remind myself that what I was reading was taking place between a chimp and a human. Sometimes sweet and tender, other times creepy and beastly, Bruno spends much of the novel's 576 pages confessing his reciprocated love and obsession for Lydia. Fair warning - this book oozes taboo topics. Be prepared to read it with an open mind, or do not read it at all.

He also divulges his passion for painting, classical music, and theatre - all of which he spends some time dabbling in. An ape who wraps himself in human clothing, perfecting his brush strokes while listening to Bach, and rehearsing his lines for an upcoming presentation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, you ask? You really must read it to believe it!

Weighing in at such a heavy page count, the book reads much faster than you would expect it to. (Granted, I'm sure it's author, Benjamin Hale, could have cut some of Bruno's musings and self-indulgent, narcissistic ramblings without sacrificing any of the storyline.)

Bruno, who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, is a creature of human consciousness. That means he suffers a wide range of human emotion - such as curiosity, guilt, shame, love, lust, fear, and rage. Much of this novel finds Bruno reflecting on each one of these feelings, philosophizing about religion and evolution, questioning the differences between man and animal, and sometimes damning humankind for taking away something he can never get back - his naive animal consciousness. It also deals heavily with his ideas of acceptance and vanity, and his increasingly urgent need to fit in at all costs.

What he has learned, he cannot unlearn. As he passes from pre-linguistic thought to spoken language, Bruno struggles to maintain the balance between his primal urges and the more subtle, unspoken actions of man.

A very well written, thought-inspiring take on what it is to be human, what it was to be an ape, and what happens when one attempts to become the other.


  1. This book seems interesting; however, Bruno must symbolize something else. I've seen the title out and about but never really took the time to take a look. Your review is very thorough. I'm not sure I can deal with intimate human/animal scenes, so I'm definitely glad you noted that. I'm interested to follow this discussion and see dialogue between you and other readers on the possible meanings of the ape-as-man subject.

  2. Hi Beth. I am not sure I read that far into it. Could Bruno be a symbol for something else? Maybe the animal in all of us? That primitive side that we hide and deny?


  3. Love the portrait you painted of this book - wonderfully reviewed. It's been on my radar for awhile, too - and can't wait to find the time to devour it. Cheers!

  4. Hi Greg, thanks for checking out the review. You really must pick it up. It looks daunting by size, but the words really do fly off the page! I would be very interested to hear what you think once you read it.