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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Posted: 26 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

THE 1970s were a tough time to be a chimpanzee in America. Sure, some costarred with Clint Eastwood in movies and on TV in the inexplicable Bj And The Bear series, but the relationship between humans and primates was not a kind one in the scientific world, as shown in Deborah Blum's Monkey Wars and Elizabeth Hess' Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, which became the affecting 2011 documentaryProject Nim.

Project Nim told the story of a Columbia University study that attempted to teach language to a chimp raised as if it were part of a human family; the tale turned tragic after the study ended and Nim was lost between two species. That's the conflict explored by Karen Joy Fowler in her PEN/Faulkner-winning latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which imagines the impact such research also would have on the host family after research has concluded – particularly if that family had children of its own.

At the centre of Fowler's story is Rosemary Cooke, who narrates with a bit of a barbed edge while looking at her past, first as a precocious toddler and most prominently as a troubled, introverted 20something at the University of California, Davis, in 1996. Telling her story from the safe distance of her early 40s in 2012, Rosemary is the daughter of two scientists who grew up in what seems a typical if emotionally repressed Midwestern family (at least from a modern literary standpoint). Her father drinks too much, her estranged older brother, Lowell, is an animal rights activist who ran away as a teenager, and her twin sister, Fern, was lost when Rosie was only five.

The loss of both children has left the Cooke family shattered, particularly with regard to Fern – who happens to be a chimpanzee. Fowler takes her time revealing that rather key detail in a way even Rosemary describes as "irritatingly coy," but the choice points toward her hazy feelings about her family that slowly come to a boil as the novel continues.

Fowler refers to multiple studies in cross-fostering chimps with human families, including psychology researcher Maurice Temerlin's experience raising a chimp as a human infant in the 1970s. But her novel hinges upon Rosemary's sharp voice, which at its best includes funny, self-aware asides such as an early reference to a character at a holiday dinner where she flippantly advises the reader, "Don't get attached to him; he's not really part of this story."

When she was five, Rosemary was told Fern went to live on a farm, which is no more true than the stories most parents tell children about a lost pet. While this deception eats away at Rosemary, she's also haunted by a sense of culpability for her role in Fern's dismissal from the family. Did Fern's behaviour grow more unmanageable as she went from a sign language-capable chimp in diapers to a maturing adult? Or was a vengeful Rosemary to blame for splitting the family by spinning a story that revealed Fern's wild nature as a threat to the family's safety?

The truth begins to seep out in a reunion with her brother, Lowell. Running from the FBI as part of the militant Animal Liberation Front, Lowell tells Rosemary the reality of her father's research and Fern's sad later life. The feverish details of Rosemary confronting both her past and Fern's present feel particularly vivid, especially as she reveals the many ways the two "sisters" communicated in a manner that blurred the differences between the species.

But Rosemary has her failings as a narrator: Lowell's voice hardly distinguishes itself from hers – a fact later explained when Rosemary admits she retold her brother's story so he sounded more lucid. The admission sheds light on her own damaged character even as it robs us from truly knowing his.

Although Fowler is perhaps most known for the bestselling Jane Austin Book Club, she has often flirted with fantasy, most recently in parts of the story collection What I Didn't See. Here her efforts remain grounded, even somewhat matter-of-fact as the book goes on with anecdotes taken from the research that surrounded Rosemary's upbringing.

Still, it's perhaps fitting that Fowler leans on the reader to infer so much from her characters in a book whose deepest impact is in forcing the reader to reconsider the divide between humans and animals. Rosemary undercuts the emotional impact of an eventual reunion with Fern, admitting, "I can't tell you what I felt; no words are sufficient. You'd need to have been in my body to understand all that." But the line just as easily could come from Fern as the lesson remains that some divides are just too painful to bridge. – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

The Islands Of Chaldea

Posted: 26 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

IT would be disingenuous for any true fan of the late, great Diana Wynne Jones to say they could reviewThe Islands Of Chaldea without any bias. For this is the book we didn't know we were getting, that one final flight of fancy we are able to take into the wonderfully weird realms she excels at creating.

It was the book Wynne Jones was working on when she died in 2011, now finally available to us after being completed by her sister Ursula Jones. Naturally, it comes laced with the kind of sentimentality that makes neutrality a tad difficult.

And yet, a few pages in, all thoughts of how or why the book was written flit away, as one is drawn deeper and deeper into the tale. Chaldea is vintage Wynne Jones, with its distinctive characters, wry humour and unexpected twists and turns, all liberally sprinkled with her patented brand of magic. It is near impossible to discern where Ursula's touch is, which is to her credit.

The story is set, naturally, on the Islands of Chaldea, which are made up of Skarr, Bernica, Gallis and Logra, each with their own leaders, customs and beliefs, not to mention quirks and foibles. Twelve-year-old Aileen, descended from a family of Wise Women in Skarr, is in the midst of an existential crisis: she's failed her initiation into magic. Raised by her no-nonsense Aunt Beck, the current Wise Woman, Aileen has no idea what she's supposed to do next.

Meanwhile, there are larger problems at hand. The island of Logra has long since walled itself off from the others with magic, with the High Prince Alasdair of Chaldea trapped there. Legend has it, however, that the magical barrier can be broken if a Wise Woman of Skarr crosses it with a man from each of the islands.

And so Aunt Beck is sent to rescue Alasdair, with Aileen in tow. There is more afoot, however, than they first know, and soon, Aileen realises that she is more than just a tag-along on this quest.

It is difficult to break down what Chaldea is about, as Wynne Jones employs her usual layered storytelling style. Yes, it is the story of a girl getting away from the shadow of her family and defining herself; however, it is also a celebration of the underdog, and finding strength in the most unexpected of places. And tying it all together is a rather sinister plot involving betrayal and double-crossing.

Like most of Wynne Jones's books, the story deals in metaphors without being precious about it.

The depiction of the Islands of Chaldea, obviously a tongue-in-cheek reference to Britain, is delightful, with each island brought to life in vivid detail. Her sly nods to real-life issues, such as inefficient monarchs, pedantic religious leaders and political power-play, only add to the book's richness.

Populating the story are more of Wynne Jones's wonderfully imperfect characters. Even while writing for children, she has always kept her characters complicatedly human, and Chaldea's characters are no exception.

Will The Islands Of Chaldea be remembered as one of Wynne Jones's best works? Probably not, for it lacks a certain edge, a subtle tinge of darkness, that the most celebrated of her books have. It is, however, a more than worthy addition to her body of work – and by reminding us yet again of her singular way with fantasy, it is also a bittersweet parting gift.

Half Bad

Posted: 26 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Dark themes, familiar emotions and a relatable protagonist make this magical tale an uncomfortably realistic read.

THE best fantasy novels are the ones that manage to show us our own world and its complex realities within their otherwordly settings. Sally Green's debut work, the young adult fantasy novel Half Bad, does this so uncomfortably well that it leaves you both enraged and depressed by the injustices of human society.

The book, the first in the Half Life trilogy, is set in modern-day Britain, where witches live secretly alongside humans. While this may echo of a certain boy wizard with a lightning-shaped scar, that is where Half Bad's similarity to the Harry Potter series ends.

Here, the witch community is divided into Black and White Witches – White Witches try to assimilate with humans and live under a council, while not much is known about Black Witches, except that they are cruel and bloodthirsty. Nathan, however, is a Half Code: half Black and half White. What's more, Nathan's father is Marcus, the most feared Black Witch in the world.

Despite being raised by his White grandmother, Nathan has spent all his life being monitored by the Council of White Witches, not to mention being discriminated against because of his parentage. And as his 17th birthday nears – which is when witches receive their magical abilities – the council begins imposing ever more tyrannical rules on him.

What's more, Nathan is facing an equally distressing internal struggle: As more and more typically Black characteristics surface in him, he starts wondering whether he is destined to follow in his father's footsteps after all – and, more worryingly, whether that would really be so bad.

Half Bad has been generating tremendous buzz in the publishing industry – the book's rights were sold to 36 countries and film rights secured by 20th Century Fox, all before even being published – and it's not at all difficult to see why.

Green creates a vivid magical world that is as dark as it is wondrous, and while many details are yet to be revealed, gives us just enough to leave us hungering for more. And for all that the book deals with heavy themes like prejudice, torture and government surveillance, she nicely balances these out with relatable, intensely human moments – despite all that Nathan is facing, he is also a teenaged boy learning to become a man, with all the attendant emotions and confusions.

Nathan is a fascinating character, with such a distinctive voice that you can't help but be drawn into his sad existence. The author pulls no punches when it comes to the physical and mental abuse Nathan suffers at the hands of those around him, motivated simply by his mixed status.

The book opens with Nathan being shackled in a cage, and it doesn't get much more comfortable from there. There are several particularly brutal episodes that will leave you cringing, and these are made even more acute by the matter-of-fact, almost dispassionate way in which Nathan narrates them.

The first-person narration is, in fact, one of the book's biggest strengths, brilliantly depicting how Nathan has had to harden and distance himself in order to survive the pain inflicted upon him. Yet, in those times when he lets his guard down, he manages to endear himself to us with his authenticity – witch or not, we can all see some of ourselves in Nathan.

The book particularly excels at depicting Nathan's relationship with his White family, especially his half-brother Arran; it's rather rare to read about close relationships between boys, and Green handles it both touchingly and realistically.

Equally effective is the way Green blurs the lines between good and evil, by questioning if those terms can be so easily delineated. The Black witches are indeed cruel in their practices – none of them apparently live beyond middle age as they usually kill each other off – and yet, the White ones hardly seem any better, thanks to their paranoia, politicking and "the ends justify the means" approach.

Much of the book is internal, with several whole chapters being dedicated to Nathan's thoughts and inner monologue while the events themselves may only take several hours. Yet, it is to Green's credit that we remain glued to the book even here. This is thanks to her interesting approach to writing, where she intersperses actual narration with a more stream-of-consciousness style that is very effective in getting us inside Nathan's head.

Perhaps the only downside to this (and this is a minor flaw) is that the story tends to first take its time to unfold before suddenly hurtling towards its climax, with a whole bunch of new characters being introduced in the last third of the book. I'm assuming we will get better acquainted with them in the following books, but I do wish characters like Gabriel (a teenage Black witch Nathan meets while on the run) were given more space.

With such a promising start to the trilogy, however, I will most certainly be picking up the next book, so I eagerly look forward to reading more of Nathan's journey in his dark, magical world filled with fascinating characters.


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