humanzee“The fleas had finished feeding.”

I really like chimpanzees. They are, after all, our hairier, more aggressive cousins who are better at climbing and picking things up with their feet. There’s little debate now that we share a common ancestor, but the exact moment at which we diverged will always remain out of sight. Is it possible for a chimp-human hybrid to exist now? Whatever else, it would raise a lot of uncomfortable questions. In this book, we meet a being that might be just that.

Humanzee is the story of Nemo, his parents and humanzee Chingwe who run the Whirligig Theatre Company, a travelling troupe that specialises in Victorian-style circus acts, primarily including a flea circus. Chingwe was rescued by the family several years before from a man who was keeping him locked up at a freak show, because while Chingwe seems to be an ape, there is also something definitely human about his appearance and habits.

Chingwe must be protected from the wider world as scientists, such as Dr Deklar, head scientist at the Primate Rehabilitation Centre, believe he may be a missing link (despite the fact that any missing link between us and chimps would be around three million years old) and want to study him. After another turn out on tour, the family return home to find that their water source, Hope Spring, has dried up. (Oh yeah, this is an alternate 1990s where global warming has reached a point that water is now more valuable than diamonds.) On his quest to find out what happened to the water, Nemo finds Martha and her devoutly religious family, who are none to pleased about the idea of proof that humans came from apes. Nemo and Martha have to keep Chingwe safe from everyone around them.

Confused yet? I was. The book opens with the characters in costume at their circus, giving the impression that it’s set years ago, only to then have a mobile phone ring during the show. And then suddenly it turns out this is a dry world where no one has any water. And there just happens to be a humanzee in the mix as well. There’s a lot going on here, and Gates almost struggles to try and keep it altogether. Truth be told, the book seems to be more about the water shortage than it does about the humanzee.

Obviously I’m way too old to be considered the target audience for this book (it’s been sitting on my shelf for a very long time), but it’s still rather poor. It might work as a half-decent introduction for pre-teens about evolution, grief, religious fanaticism, and how to write annoying protagonists (my loathing for child narrators is well-documented on this blog; Nemo is as irritating as His Dark Materials’ Lyra), but as a story it’s hardly great. Billed as a “thriller”, it doesn’t thrill.

Granted, towards the end there are some decisions made by the author that seem almost brave, and shake up the notion of the “happily ever after”, but this just leaves a whole host of questions unanswered, primarily, “What exactly is Chingwe?” Is it better that we never find out, or does it detract from the final piece?

I almost didn’t even bother reviewing this book, but that isn’t fair. Present it to a twelve-year-old and they might take great joy in it, but I’m happy to have it done with. If, however, you’re now going, “But a book about a chimp-human is exactly what I wanted right now”, then read Next by Michael Crichton. And beware the books that sit on your shelves for years: there’s probably a reason for that.

If you need something a bit more adult, then ditch the chimps and Christians and try reading about cannibalism and Celtic mythology in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus.