Review: A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam

Chimp Eden Sanctuary - Mimi
Mimi at Chimp Eden Sanctuary, Zaire – (c) Afrika Force

Can a book change your life? Or at least, change some fundamental way that you view the world? I would argue that after reading this prize-winning novel A Beautiful Truth, something has shifted within me about the way that I think about consciousness and the animal kingdom.

On a very superficial level, the novel is about chimpanzees, with three main story lines: a childless couple adopts a chimp and raises him as a son; scientists study a group of chimps living in a contained but somewhat natural environment, observing their behaviour and teaching them to use signs, computers, and image boards to communicate; and researchers carry out experiments on chimps in a prison-like facility, exposing them to viruses including the common cold and HIV.

But the magic of this novel is how McAdam weaves these stories together and develops well-rounded characters out of some of the chimps, characters for whom you care deeply.  It’s also the first time I’ve read an author writing from the point of view of an animal.

My book club met yesterday afternoon to discuss the novel, and it was the widest set of ratings we’ve ever given a novel. Some found it slow and difficult to read, particularly the sections written from the point of view of the chimps. One had issues with the “adoption” concept: why would a childless couple choose to adopt a chimp rather than a child, or simply not adopt at all. Some (like myself) confessed to crying during the difficult climax. But I think that all of us learned something. We had a terrific discussion about the issues raised by the novel around animal-based research, the level of intelligence (for lack of a better word) of chimpanzees, so eloquently exposed by this book, and the moments of absolutely thrilling prose.

Kin Echlin, the author of Elephant Winter, writes

McAdam’s language reaches into that mysterious place where a word ends and a feeling begins. A Beautiful Truth is a story about love and beauty and our dreams for our children and our inescapable loneliness. The characters, human and animal, are sad and honest and true. I could not put this novel down, and only when I finished it could I breathe again.

Personally? I gave it an almost perfect rating. I feel like I’ve stepped through some door that can’t be closed. I’ve explored the website of the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary for chimps and other animals located near Montreal, where McAdam did some of his research. I’m looking for other books, movies, and documentaries on these beautiful beings so that I can learn more.

I may have an activist burgeoning inside of me. Leave me recommended resources in the comments.

Colin McAdam tweets  @McAdamColin.
Find the Fauna Foundation on Facebook and on Twitter.

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