Review by Sue Glynn
Publisher: Bloomsbury May 2021
ISBN 978-1526630001 HB
I’ve been reading T C Boyle’s novels for many years now. The first one was Riven Rock, published in 1998, which I enjoyed so much that I’ve been a fan ever since. His books have covered a wide variety of topics, other highlights in my view being The Women (2009), about architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the women in his life, and The Tortilla Curtain (1995), about the exploitation of Mexican immigrants in California.
Talk to Me, his latest work, follows one of his recurring themes, that of the relationship between humans and the natural world, in this case between us and our nearest animal relatives, chimpanzees. Aimee, a young student, is fascinated when she sees professor Guy Schermerhorn on television communicating by sign language with his chimp Sam . She gets in touch with Guy and becomes a voluntary babysitter for Sam. This involves moving in with both of them and entering Guy’s experiment to communicate with Sam and raise him as a human. But her involvement with Guy and her growing affection for Sam are threatened when the project is disrupted by Dr Moncrieff who wants to take Sam away from his life as a human and into captivity and a future as an experimental subject.
I found this a fascinating read about a subject I’ve been interested in for years. Several documentaries have been made about chimps raised in human families with varying degrees of success. This novel, however, has an advantage in that it gives the chimp a voice. One of the most interesting features of the book are the passages throughout of Sam’s thoughts after he is returned to captivity with other chimps. There he struggles to come to terms with his animal identity after being treated as a human.
The book raises so many questions about our relationship with animals, and how different we really are from them. Sam is accused of behaving badly and being dangerous but is he really acting very differently from a human in similar circumstances? Are many of our reactions still basically due to our animal instincts?. T C Boyle raises these questions with a lightness of touch. He is a wonderful writer who can portray characters and places vividly and tell a story that keeps the reader intrigued throughout. If you haven’t read any of his novels before you’ll have hours of reading pleasure to come!