Interviews with an Ape

Felice Fallon

Century, £14.99

Review by Mark Smith

Interviews with an Ape is based on an extraordinary idea. What if we reversed the normal order of things? What if we took all the books and novels and films about animals, all the documentaries, all the whispering commentaries of David Attenborough, and flipped them? What if, instead of us gazing at them, they gazed at us? And, more importantly, what if the animals could tell us exactly what they thought?

This is the audacious idea, the striking imaginative leap, at the centre of Felice Fallon’s novel, and it’s explored through a gorilla called Einstein. In the opening chapter, he and his mother are living wild, peaceably and naturally, when violence suddenly erupts. A creature with three arms appears. One of the arms spits sparks and the creature points the third arm at Einstein’s mother. Already, we are seeing humans, and what they do, through the eyes of non-humans.

His mother now dead at the hands of a hunter, Einstein ends up in a zoo. But what’s extraordinary about him is his ability to pick up sign language. In the real world, we know some apes appear to have this ability – you may have heard of Koko, a female gorilla who could sign around a thousand words – but Fallon can go further as a novelist: her gorilla can use sign language – and reason – as well as any human and in Interviews with an Ape, the gorilla tells us what he thinks.

Some will think that the result, which follows Einstein as well as a whale, an elephant and a foxhound, indulges in anthropomorphism – and admittedly some of the conceits (the foxhound understanding TV for example) do stretch the imagination more than others. But don’t be fooled: this novel has a convincing link with reality. We are learning more and more about animal sentience all the time and it means only one thing: the difference between us and them is getting smaller.

It is this idea – the essential sameness of Einstein and humans – that forms the central lesson of Interviews with an Ape although, with only momentary lapses, it never feels like a lecture. Fallon has a strong sense of the drama of her story and manages to include some of the tropes of modern crime novels, horror movies and even action films to vary the pace. But she also knows how to be moving as well as shocking: the first contact between Einstein and a human who understands him is a deeply affecting moment, and the ending does what books often have to try harder than movies to achieve: it makes you cry.

Perhaps the most subtle achievement of Fallon’s book, however, is that it’s not only a rebuke for humans. In some ways, the novel sets out to achieve something similar to Animal Farm: Orwell’s book was designed to expose the violence, venality, and hypocrisy of humans and Interviews with an Ape does the same. At one point, Einstein looks through his bars at humankind and wonders how they can be so brilliant, creative and innovative and at the same time so wilfully, blindly, and unimaginably stupid. “In this,” he says, “you humans are truly unique.”

But Fallon’s book goes further than Animal Farm, in which the animals were merely metaphors. Fallon is making an intelligent and sympathetic attempt to portray animals as creatures that think and feel much like us and it is this which makes the novel so moving and will make it last. Einstein himself puts it best, and who am I to disagree with Einstein? “In every essential aspect we are exactly alike,” he says. “We want to be safe, to raise our young, to have enough to eat and a place to call home. We are animals just like you.”