Review published on April 21, 2012. Reviewed by Erin Britton
Bruno Littlemore considers himself to be something of a renaissance man and so it should be no surprise that he hopes his memoirs will “enlighten, enchant, forewarn, instruct and perchance even entertain.” Fortunately, while certainly rather smugly pleased with himself, Bruno does have a profoundly interesting story to tell. Bruno was born in Chicago and endured a thoroughly average childhood until his remarkable intellect brought him to the attention of the bookishly divine Lydia and, under her tutelage, to an appreciative worldwide audience.
With study and following Lydia’s devoted guidance, Bruno develops into a precocious linguist, artist and philosopher. It seems that he has the world at his feet. Until, that is, Bruno falls in love with Lydia, things get physical and the worldwide adoration turns to worldwide outrage. But this isn’t simply the story of a taboo teacher/student relationship, for, despite all his study and the best of his intentions, Bruno is striving to be something that he isn’t. While Bruno’s concerns, interests and anxieties are certainly all too human, there is no denying the fact that he is physically a chimpanzee.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a big book chock-full of big themes. Bruno himself is a fragile, ostentatious, smug, self-aggrandising, caring, naive, clever fool of a fellow. Through Bruno’s recollections Benjamin Hale contrives to make the reader question their notions about what it truly means to be human. Bruno is not always the most reliable or likeable guide on this journey into the nature of love and the strength of societal norms, but it is impossible to ignore what he has to say. While there is plenty to the story that is entertaining, moving and at times laugh-out-loud funny, Hale does not shy away from the dark side of Bruno and from the slightly stomach-churning elements of his taboo feelings.
The romantic struggles, societal handicaps and musings on the cost of evolution of a talking chimpanzee could have quite easily ended up feeling prosperous but Hale does a marvellous job of making it all seem very reasonable. There’s something strangely logical about the undeniably pompous Bruno deciding, after the shame and humiliation he experiences in Chicago, to go on the run to New York and stage an off-Broadway production of The Tempest. Although in his memoirs Bruno comes across as truly, fallibly human, it is of course still debatable how his near-humanity is seen by secondary characters. Bruno certainly believes himself to be nearly able to “pass” as a regular, if rather short and occasionally hirsute, guy but in the context of the story this seems unlikely.
Although The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is based on a unique and often astounding concept, there are moments when Bruno’s narrative wanders too far from the core story and his asides veer towards the pretentious. This is a long book and it could have been perhaps trimmed down just a bit to aid the flow of the story. While there are many asides and tangents, the majority of them being quite interesting, they don’t always serve to move the story forward. Having said that, when weighed against the many moments of greatest that can be found in Benjamin Hale’s writing, this remains a minor complaint.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a delightful, moving satire. It has moments of joy as well as moments of extreme sadness and is a truly thought-provoking novel. As Benjamin Hale’s debut novel, it is both brave and innovative and, hopefully, a sign of great things to come.
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