Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel – A hard act to follow.

Half BrotherHalf Brother by Kenneth Oppel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cormac’s review (aged 10)

This book is about a family who adopt a baby chimp as part of an experiment to see whether he can be taught to communicate using sign language. The mother and father are both scientists and their son, Ben, is 13 when Zan comes to live with them. This is why the book is called Half Brother, because Ben has to accept this animal not as a pet, but as a brother. At first Ben has a hard time with this but eventually he comes to his senses and realises that Zan means more to him than a science experiment.

However his Dad ends up shutting down the project – he says it’s because Zan is getting too strong and dangerous but Ben knows it’s because he’s lost faith in the project and doesn’t believe Zan is learning language or ever will. So the whole book is about one boy’s fight to save his little chimp brother.
Along the way he meets many characters, some who play a key part in Zan’s life, such as the Godwin family and Tim Borden and especially Peter, a student who works with Zan and becomes his best friend. This book made me feel sad sometimes, and also excited – there were some intense bits in there. I also learnt about biomedical labs and how cruel they are to animals. It’s funny, sad and tragic all at the same time.

Mum’s 2 cents.

Cormac laid out the plot so well there should be little for me to add. WRONG! There is in fact so much more to be said about Half Brother – that I’m actually going to need to resort to bullet points:

– First up, most importantly, it’s superbly well written. I don’t know exactly what it is that distinguishes YA fiction from adult fiction, because at no point did I feel that this book was beneath my reading level, yet nor did it seem to be above Cormac’s either. It was simply easy and welcoming to read, like settling into a (faux, of course) fur-covered beanbag.

– The story is gripping. It achieves the perfect balance of plot/pace to studied introspection, and the ethical issues, while paramount, somehow never dominate. In fact, I happen to know that a person can read this book and not become overly bogged down by the ethical dilemmas it throws up – Cormac being a case in point. Although we discussed the thorny issues as they cropped up, I don’t think Cormac, left to his own devices, would have beaten himself up about them. The dilemmas range from what does it mean to be human? to should scientists maintain emotional distance from their subjects? to is animal testing is ever justified, even if it helps to save human lives?. Although these issues are present all the way through the book, Oppel somehow escapes the tendency to slip into overt preaching – the story speaks for itself and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

– The characters are authentic. From the long-haired hippy Peter, Zan’s handler, to Ben’s Mum and Dad, to the prissy private school kids and eager-to-please university students. They are developed primarily through dialogue, which helps keeps the narrator’s voice in the background and adds to their authenticity. This is particularly the case for Ben’s parents, who carry a lot of baggage in their relationship (that is to say, as much as anyone else!) leaving Ben to sift through the left-overs and make sense of his own place in the family. And all throughout there are alliances and trade-offs, politics, pride and finances at stake, ensuring the reader is well invested in Zan’s future by the final few pages.

– Authenticity of the period. This book is like the literary equivalent of Mad Men. Set in the 1970s, kids ride bikes and shoot BB guns, they’re “necking” at discos, listening to Abba and washing dishes by hand, they consider colour tv’s and digital clocks the height of technology, and experiments involving chimps are all the rage. The attention to detail is subtle but fantastic.

– The surprises. And there are a few – one or two outrageous scenes in particular left us laughing/gawping in a mixture of horror/hilarity. These scenes passed as briefly as they appeared with no explanation or comment, and I loved that. It reminded us, just as any good fiction should, that anything can happen.

– It made me cry – and in case you didn’t know, it’s hard to read out loud through tears.

I was worried Zan was getting upset, so I talked to him as I groomed him. I started telling him the story of his day, and flying on an aeroplane, but he wouldn’t remember any of that, and anyway, it was such a sad story I couldn’t keep going.

But if I had to dispense with all the bullet points, what would I say about Half Brother? I’d say it’s going to be a hard act to follow.

* Should also note that this book is likely based on true events (must look into it, no info is given in the book) – a movie I saw last year, Project Nim follows a very similar trajectory to that of Project Zan. Interestingly, I wanted to take the kids to see that film but it was rated R15 which I couldn’t quite understand, being as it was a documentary. It wasn’t until afterwards that I appreciated why… Boy, the 70s were a weird time…. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836/

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2 thoughts on “Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel – A hard act to follow.

    • Oh I can completely relate, I cried too… It’s really affecting. A good follow up is The One and Only Ivan, and I found that emotional too but has a happy ending. Zan gets his happy ending too, but it’s bittersweet and doesn’t come without a lot of turmoil along the way. It’d make a great film.

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