Book review

Humanzee by Susan Gates (1998)

There are a huge number of exciting ideas in this book. For a start, there's Chingwe. Now, he's some kind of primate, possibly a cross between a human and a chimpanzee, (is that possible?). Or, he might be the missing link. That would mean he was a surviving remnant of an ancient breed from which modern man is directly descended. Anyway, Chingwe is living a miserable life in a fairground freak show until he is spotted and rescued by Nemo. Nemo is brilliant. He's a flea handler in his parents flea circus, among other roles.

I think that could have made an enjoyable book standing alone, but that's just the first couple of chapters. Next, Nemo and his parents, who travel a lot because they are the Whirligig Theatre Company, go home for a break to their remote cottage in the north. They discover, to their consternation, that the natural spring which they are dependent on for all their water, has suddenly dried up. In the story, this is extremely important because the whole country is parched due to climate changes and global warming.

Nemo ventures into the underground cave system which has been revealed by the retreating spring in search of their water. He doesn't find the water but he does find that they have new neighbours, (he pops up out of the ground through another hole over on their side of the hill). He is struck, at first, by how frank and friendly this family is, especially Martha who he would like very much to see more of.

He's made a big mistake. This is a family of fundamental Christians who are preparing for Armageddon (the end of the world/Judgment Day) which is scheduled to happen in the year 2000. Martha's parents are a lot more sinister than they seem. Her father has converted one of the caves into an underground bunker for his family and stocked it with supplies of food, water (yes, Nemo's diverted water course) and weapons.

Martha has been brought up to believe absolutely in the story of Adam and Eve and has never heard of the theory of evolution, or the existence of dinosaurs. She is totally fascinated to meet Chingwe, and feels she needs a few explanations from her parents.

There's more, but I have to leave you something to read for yourself. As I said at the beginning, this book is crammed full of ideas. I thought it was hugely enjoyable. There's a lot of rip-roaring action which I haven't even mentioned, romance, thought-provoking ideas, humour and grief, all played out by carefully drawn characters. I particularly liked Nemo, who swings between wild extrovert over-confidence due to his theatrical upbringing and devastating shyness due to his sudden interest in girls. And Chingwe is very endearing, in his own mangy way:

Chingwe was staring back at Martha. There was absolutely no expression on his face. With one hand he was scratching his belly. But I saw his other hand reach behind him and close on a stone.
Ma had seen it too. She warned me, 'Nemo, he's got a stone.'
'Chingwe!' I said. 'Don't you dare throw that!' I apologized to Martha, 'Sorry, he's a bit of a hooligan. But he can't help it. It's 'cos he's scared of people.' I shrugged. 'And he's scared of other apes too.'
Gently, I unclasped Chingwe's fingers one by one and took the stone away. Like an octopus he sneaked out another long arm. I thought he'd picked up another stone. His arm whirled round. 'Duck!' I yelled to Martha.
She didn't duck, she was too surprised. But nothing hit her. Confused, I looked back at Chingwe.
His shoulders were shaking with silent laughter. I opened his hand. It was empty.
'Sorry,' I told Martha, shrugging. 'It's his idea of a joke. Chingwe,' I said, wagging my finger at him, 'behave yourself.'

Quick to read, because the action pulls you along. This is one of those books where you have to disregard some of the impossibilities. I think it's called 'suspending your disbelief'. For instance, I'm not much of a civil engineer, but I think you probably would notice if your neighbours were building a dam and a reservoir and an underground bunker with solid radiation-proof doors, even if you were away a fair amount of the time. And what would the local planning officer have to say about it? It's like all those secret rocket installations hidden away on remote desert islands that 007 has to go searching for, as if they wouldn't have taken years to build and twice the local population in the workforce. Anyway, highly recommended.

What can I read next?

Susan Gates has written other excellent books. Have a look at this one:

If you enjoy the theatrical background of Nemo's life, you might like to look at this excellent story set in a circus, by Kirsty Murray:

You might also consider having a look at this one by Dirk Walbrecker:

There's a huge amount of adventure in Humanzee, so you might really enjoy this one by Louis Sachar:

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