There are books that tell stories that could have happened. And then there are books that make you yearn that the story they tell, however fantastic, had in fact happened — as if without it, without these particular events and without this human being who’d experienced them and now tells her tale, there is something amiss in the world. The only disbelief you suspend is the one where you can’t believe you’ll never meet this character in your real life.
Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel is one of such books. Written as a memoir and filled with references to actual events and facts, the story balances on the verge of “happened” just as the narrator, Rosemary, balances on the verge of a grand disclosure that will expose her as she is, with all her idiosyncrasies, to the whole world.
In a nutshell, the novel imagines the fate of one of the experiments actually performed around nineteen seventies (if I am not mistaken) in the US, and pursuing comparative analysis of human and primate development. In such an experiment, a human and an ape infant are reared together from the very early age on, they are treated in the same way, as if both are human; they know each other intimately, they communicate with each other using sign language. It is researchers’ hypothesis that the ape child may be advanced, behaviorally, closer to the level of a human child. It was the actual outcome, at least in some cases, that the human child began to acquire behavioral traits more reminiscent of an ape. Rosemary Cooke, the heroine and the narrator of the novel is one of such children. She spent the first five years of her life with a sister who happened to be a chimpanzee.