A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam follows the life of Judy and Walt Ribke, a couple who, after Judy has an operation, are unable to have children on their own. The secondary plot follows the research of Dr. David Kennedy, who studies chimpanzees at the Girdish Institute for primate research.
The novel’s seemingly silly plotline slowly develops into an irresistible love for Judy and Walt’s chimp Looee, and the chimpanzees’ culture as demonstrated by Dr. David’s observations. The story is told from the perspective of the couple and Dave; as well as, from the perspective of the primates.
Quoted dialogue is entirely absent from the text, which illustrates the chimpanzees’ wordlessness and highlights the development of an unspoken communication. The characters are able to grow through their relationships with the primates without words, suggesting there must be a way to learn from one another without speaking. It leaves the reader questioning what in the book is actually spoken, and what is thought; what is understood and what is misconstrued.
McAdam’s text reads as if it is from a place of distant memories. Reading the thoughts of the characters is like listening to a story that took place long ago. It is not simply a story about primates—it is about the way creatures grow and learn about themselves, about success and regret, and the progression of life as beings age and become weary.
The chimpanzees are a blank slate upon which the characters are reflected. They are simultaneously described as intelligent, powerful, stupid, childish, innocent, good, aggressive, old, and young. They are ageless—with the appearance of an old man, the dexterity of an adolescent, and the mind of a child. By observing the primates, the characters can see each stage of their own lives—and in doing so become self-aware of their own development.
In one scene David is sitting with Mr. Ghoul, one of the apes at the institute, and it unravels the intent of A Beautiful Truth:
It was time to move away from language, and away from trials which set out to show how like us they might be. […] Perhaps his work boiled down to an attempt to redress the unspeakable loneliness of humans. Perhaps it was just a recognition that sometimes one ape needs another to show him who he is. […] He looked at Ghoul and saw an old-looking, wise-looking, restless but composed hairy teenager, a perpetual but time-worn child… […] David pointed at the lexigram for friend. Mr. Ghoul thought Dave had pointed at the picture for milk, and waited. (171)
McAdam does not paint an unrealistic picture of what the primates can comprehend. In the end they are always animals: intelligent, understanding, and feeling animals—but animals nonetheless.
What adds to the calibre of A Beautiful Truth is McAdam’s ability to keep his narrator’s perspective opaque. Throughout the novel, there are few hints as to whether the reader should be feeling empathetic, angry, or condescending. As a result, the reader is forced to come to their own conclusion, and ultimately find that there is no clear answer.
Not simply a story about the life of a family and their chimp, the book slowly progresses into a profound analysis of man, animal, and the unnerving similarities and differences between them.