Humanity…entity, or experience? Inherent or self-created reality? That’s the question raised by Benjamin Hale’s novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Written as a memoir, the book follows the life story of the brilliant Bruno, his philosophical and artistic pursuits and the deep and loving relationship between him and his mentor Lydia. The problem? Bruno is a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee with a highly evolved mind, but a chimpanzee nonetheless. A chimpanzee who chooses to change his species and become a man…but can he? Is that possible?
The question of what makes us human isn’t a new theme for writers, being tackled many times before, usually in the realm of science fiction (which this isn’t) with sinister robots and the like. In his début novel Hale bypasses the usual, run of the mill sticky ethical and metaphysical questions surrounding humanity and instead produces something unique and quite remarkable. Throughout the first half of the book we follow Bruno on his journey of discovery from his beginnings in a primate research lab, Hale manages to articulate not the answer but the experience, the feeling of what it is to be human. We stand back and watch, as if from the outside, this outsider discover the experience of human life and relationships over a short period. In doing so we get to stand back and notice from a fresh perspective the wonderful and complex human experience, across a broad range of aspects of life. It gave me pause to reflect on and celebrate my own journey of self discovery and discovery of the world around me which isthe experience of life, my life. Here Hale uses the power of story brilliantly to enable the reader to be drawn into a world and ‘discover’ a perspective on life without needing to be explicitly told. unfortunately he can’t keep it up across the entire book. After Bruno reaches his maturity the style; the of narrative turns into Hale’s preachy rant against humanity, through the lips of Bruno, thinly garbed in the framework of a story. This method of storytelling is pretty common and no doubt gets the point across with absolute clarity. But if that’s your goal why not write an essay? Of course story can be used to communicate a message but the real power which story can bring to communicating ideas, and which other genres lack, as I’ve briefly mentioned, lies elsewhere. However that’s not an easy thing to do, Hale accomplishes it brilliantly for most of the novel and I have to humbly add that I can’t give this critique as a writer but only as a reader.
Nevertheless The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore remains an amazing book. It’s a delight to read, and Bruno himself is a brilliant creation, a complex and self-contradictory character, neither completely hero nor villain, sometimes quite endearing and sometimes a bit of a pompous tool – at times pushing the bounds of accomplishment and sophistication, at other times facing disaster and failure. It’s pretty incredible to think this is Hale’s first novel. Overall it’s brilliant.
One other thing though, and look, let’s be frank. There’s bestiality in this book. At one point I thought Benjamin Hale had ruined the idea of sex for me forever (turns out he hadn’t). But that stuff’s just messed up eh. Be warned. There’s sex in this book, and it’s usually pretty crook. Unneccessarily so, in my opinion.
Otherwise, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is well worth checking out.