Ape House – Sara Gruen

Ape House - Sara GruenApe House
Sara Gruen

Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships — but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.

Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn’t understand people, but animals she gets — especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she’s ever felt among humans… until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what’s really going on inside.

When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and “liberating” the apes, John’s human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he’ll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becomes the biggest — and unlikeliest — phenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them. Now, to save her family of apes from this parody of human life, Isabel must connect with her own kind, including John, a green-haired vegan, and a retired porn star with her own agenda.

Ape House delivers great entertainment, but it also opens the animal world to us in ways few novels have done, securing Sara Gruen’s place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before..

Isabel Duncan is a scientist working with the Bonobo apes at the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas.  When the lab is blown up in a deliberate explosion, Isabel is injured and the apes are ‘liberated’… right into the hands of a ruthless programme maker who is determined that the apes shall be the stars of a new reality tv show.  Reporter John Thigpen was originally supposed to be writing a piece about the work at the lab, but after the explosion the story turns into something else entirely…

I read Sara Gruen’s debut novel, Water for Elephants, almost three years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  So much so in fact that I thought her follow-up was almost certainly going to be a let-down, but I am happy to say that I was wrong. I was hooked on this book from page one. The main characters – Isabel, her friend and co-worker Celia, John, and his wife Amanda – were all skilfully drawn and well developed, and I felt as though I really knew these people. More than that, the apes themselves were such distinctive characters too.

The writing flowed well, and moved the story along.  I was eager throughout to find out what was going to happen next.  I cannot comment on the accuracy of the description of the Bonobos and their ability to communicate with humans and each other; however Gruen has clearly done her homework in this regard (indeed, most of the conversations with the apes in this story are based on the real conversations of Bonobos).

Overall, this was a lovely book – part satire, part love story to the beauty of great apes, with plenty of comedic moments, and lots of drama.  Highly recommended.



  1. Donna says:

    This sounds great! Will give it a whirl :)

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