Kenneth Oppel's latest offering, Half Brother, is an affecting and thought-provoking look at how humans and animals interact, specifically humans and chimpanzees. It's the story of Ben Tomlin and his family, and what happens when Ben's father, a behavioural scientist, begins a high-profile experiment to test whether chimps can learn human sign language and use it to communicate. The family brings a baby chimp right into their home and starts to work with him, teaching him language and tracking his progress. It isn't long before Zan becomes far more than a research subject. As he takes a place in the family, more a child and a brother than a chimp, the scientific endeavour becomes infinitely more complicated and ethically suspect. When Project Zan loses funding, Zan's future quickly turns towards dark possibilities and Ben must face the question the family has tried to ignore for months: just how are they meant to feel about Zan, and what do they owe him?
I always appreciate Oppel's ability to just tell a good story, to keep things moving along at the perfect pace, never lagging, always giving just the right amount of description, dialogue and exposition. With his Airborn series, I felt when I was reading that I was completely absorbed by the narrative. The world went away. It surprised me that Half Brother was not as perfectly paced overall. It was slow in places. The second half of the novel picked up substantially, however, and every scene involving Zan caught me immediately. He has to be one of the most memorable primates in fiction. The subplot involving Ben's crush on a girl at school felt fairly run-of-the-mill and sometimes even dull against the drama of the experiment and Zan's behaviour. The family dynamic between Ben and his parents was true and nuanced. The ending is dynamite. It's not an easy ending. I like that. (Tissues may be required).
Half Brother should inspire discussion around animal experimentation, inter-species connection, animals' abilities to feel emotion, and many other challenging subjects. It certainly conveys that when humans enter into working relationships with animals, we will inevitably face complicated ethical questions that seem to become more and more difficult the more we consider them.
Oppel posted an interesting reflection on writing the book at his blog. Check it out here. Perfect for budding scientists, animal lovers, debaters and teens who think their siblings could not be any more annoying.
Half Brother is published by Harper Collins in Canada and Scholastic in the U.S.