Sunday, 16 January 2011
Review: Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
Interestingly for such an off-the-wall premise, Half Brother reads almost like a memoir. The sense of place and time is authentic in an understated way, lending a certain nostalgia to Ben's coming-of-age story and giving a wider context to the entire Zan experiment. Teenager Ben finds himself faced with ethical and moral question about his father's methods at a time when public awareness about animal rights was nowhere near as widespread as it is now, and eventually is forced to re-evaluate his own relationship with the chimp he thinks of as a little brother. While all this might sound a little bit heavy, in fact Kenneth Oppel explores the issues at hand with a welcome lightness of touch.
The experiment at the centre of Half Brother may be all about human influence on a chimpanzee test subject, but the novel is also about Zan's effect on a human boy. Because just as Zan is beginning to learn to interact with his hosts, Ben's own development from boy to man is being subtly influenced by his bond with the chimp. Ben's story sees him determined to transform himself from nerdy onlooker to alpha male, but he actually has more to learn from Zan than he at first anticipates. Navigating the social pecking order, the uncertainty of first love and his changing relationship with his father, Ben gradually finds himself identifying more and more with his non-human brother. It's a slightly more mature story than I originally anticipated, as Ben struggles with all the same issues that other teenage boys do, but this is part of what makes it so powerful. It's a book that asks huge questions about the world, but more importantly it's a book that will make you feel.
Half Brother is a unique and poignant story about love, friendship, and growing up. The premise naturally makes for some light-hearted moments, and the blend of humour and pathos is perfectly balanced. Emotional and thoughtful, it's the kind of story that will make you laugh and cry while you're reading it, and then linger in your mind for days afterward. It's wonderfully different.
Out: January 6th 2011, UK
Thank you to David Fickling Books for providing a review copy of this book.