Benjamin Hale’s debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is an extremely bizarre and also extremely well-written tale of a chimpanzee named Bruno who evolves from a caged animal in a zoo to an educated creature who can speak and pass for human (or at least a very short, disfigured one). Bruno first comes to the attention of primatologists at the University of Chicago when he has an unusually intelligent response to an experiment being performed on a group of chimps. He soon becomes their star research subject and is eventually allowed to live outside the laboratory with Lydia Littlemore, one of the primatologists. (I won’t go through all of what transpires between Bruno and Lydia but will say that this book may offend some readers.
Despite intelligence that is impressive not just for a chimpanzee but for a human as well, Bruno has difficulty overcoming his more primal urges. The novel is made up of the memoirs Bruno dictates to a graduate student at a primate research center in Georgia. He reveals in the first few pages that he is not at the research center by choice but is being held there for a murder he committed. The novel is close to 600 pages and the murder isn’t explained in detail until near the end. The intervening pages have many bizarre elements but what’s most impressive about The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is what a tour de force of storytelling it is. I often avoid novels that go over 400 pages in large part because so many of them seem poorly edited rather than really requiring such a thick book in order to tell the story. Here, each scene seems essential. During the book’s later chapters, Hale doesn’t run out of gas but instead introduces two of the books best characters.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a remarkable debut novel. Here’s hoping that for his next book Benjamin Hale chooses a more accessible subject so more readers can appreciate what a fine writer he is.