A queue jumper
I must apologise to all the other (possibly wonderful) books that have been waiting patiently on my reading pile for a while now. This one jumped the queue.
For starters, a strong recommmdation from Philip Pullman is hard to ignore and he is quoted as saying of this: 'I don't know when I last read a book with such pure and unalloyed pleasure.' I often give only limited (if any) credence to book jacket hype, but this seemed to have a ring of genuine enthusiasm. Then, as soon as I picked the book up and opened its pages, it struck me as one of the most beautiful and intriguingly attractive volumes I have held since . . . well, since Thornhill actually (and that wasn't very long ago) but then that book itself was quite exceptional. The two incentives together made The Murderer's Ape irresistible and I started reading before I put it down again. That I finished it before going back to reading anything else is testament to this book being far more than an entrancing cover.
In fact it turned out that entrancing is an excellent description for the whole story. I have noticed that children's stories from continental Europe often have a quirky element, less common in those originally written in English.*
I do not mean this as a negative. Quite the contrary. It tends to give them what is, for an English-speaking reader, delightful freshness and inordinate charm. Here we have a story with a gorilla as the main character, indeed the eponymous narrator. She is Sally Jones (all one name, not two, despite appearances!) and is not only intelligent and literate (although she cannot speak) but a skilled artisan and talented engineer. She lives amongst a cast of otherwise totally human characters and the rest of her world seem to accept her presence and nature, often without apparent surprise or question. This odd situation is never really explained or justified, yet it is presented as so much a given of the story that we as readers happily accept it too. The situation itself becomes very much a central element of the book's allure.
The long and the short of it
The whole narrative too has a rather different feel from many of our contemporary children's books. There is a tendency these days to try to hold children's interest either with lashings of silly humour, or with a pell mell torrent of highly dramatic action. Although The Murderer's Ape has a good deal of both humour and incident, these are couched within a lengthy, meandering narrative, more reminiscent in some ways of Dickens. It leads the reader through many episodes and involves them in journeys across oceans and continents (Asia as well as Europe) whilst gradually working towards its resolution. It is not afraid to linger and fill in detail of each interesting and different episode along the way. And this is far from being a bad thing. What it does is allow the reader time and opportunity to get to know the characters really well and consequently to care deeply about what happens to them. When things are going well, we are happy to wallow in pleasures along with the story's loveable protagonists. When they are going badly we are keen to turn pages in the hope that our friends will come through to better times. The story's setting in the relatively recent past (between the two World Wars of the 20th century) sheds interesting light onto many aspects of social and political history (particularly the development of transport) whilst still feeling relatively easy to imagine and identify with.
For a children's book, it is fairly long and will require young readers with at least a degree of reading stamina. Yet it continually feels too short rather than too lengthy. The version we have here must, I think, be an excellent translation; its prose is always comfortable to read and (despite one or two instances of US spelling/usage) convincingly idiomatic. Its short chapters propel the reading forward and, even if it's grip is not vice (vise?) like, it is nevertheless completely engrossing and compelling.
This results primarily from the fact that the book's greatest strength of all lies in its characters, who we come to know so well. A few are wicked and corrupt, as the story demands, others develop goodness as a result of what happens in the story itself, but its protagonists are wholeheartedly good, decent people (plus, of course one good, decent gorilla). They continually demonstrate real concern, kindness and loyalty. As readers, they are people (!) we care about and are pleased to spend time with. We desperately want things to turn out well for them and are immeasurably warmed when they do. They are, I am sure, also characters with whom parents and teachers will be delighted for their children to spend time. The Murderer's Ape may not be a deep and meaningful book, like some I have recently reviewed, but it is the epitome of reading pleasure. It will give rich, entrancing, heartwarming entertainment to many, I know, for many years to come.
A gem in the turban
The book is considerably enhanced by the author's own copious very skilled and engaging illustrations. Like the best, they do not stifle or supersede the reader's own imagination, but help considerably in drawing us into the world and time of the story. They will, perhaps, be particularly helpful to many children in providing rich, detailed images of places they do not directly know. The depictions of Lisbon are especially evocative.
There is no better way to describe this book than to say that it is truly and deeply enchanting. It is a gem in the turban of children's literature and will provide its readers with one of their strangest but most enduring fictional frienships.
We should once again be grateful to Pushkin Press for bringing us not only a sumptuous volume but another children's fiction jewel that most of us could never have accessed in its original language. It is similarly available in the USA from Delacorte Press.
*Dave Shelton's decidedly quirky A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is a notable and very wonderful exception.