A memoir about love and murder as told by a chimp? Yes, please, I thought when I first heard about Benjamin Hale’s debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. What I imaged and hoped for was an adventure story in the vein of Conquest for the Planet of the Apes or something. Some cross-country journey from the point of view of the world’s first speaking chimpanzee. A forbidden unrequited love. What it’s like to be an alien in a world of men.

And, all that’s there, in some form. But, that’s not what this book is about. This book is about language. Language as philosophy. Language as love. Language as evil. Language as grace.┬áIt is not about the moment Bruno becomes self-aware (through language) but about the process of becoming self aware (through words, words, words). Learning to think is a process, after all.

The book, itself, treats language as a commodity. It is beautifully written, the words streaming through your head, gently, in time. But, only if you have the lexicon to keep pace. This, of course, will limit the novel’s appeal to a wider audience. But maybe that’s okay. Bruno, himself, would care little about how many readers he reached so long as the ones he did enjoyed the show.

The hardest leap for any reader, though, comes with the story of Bruno’s love for Lydia, the scientist (partly modeled on primatologist Jane Goodall) who rescued him from the Lincoln Park Zoo. For, that love is decidedly not unrequited. And this central narrative owes much, I think, to Nabokov.

Hale, as a writer, delights in allusions to great works of literature and popular culture, throughout. Planet of the Apes is there, of course, but also and mostly, Pinocchio (for who is Leon Smoler, Bruno’s best friend, if not a present-day Stromboli?). If I’m not mistaken, I also caught references to The Twilight Zone and (perhaps) Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

I loved the book but I wanted more whimsy. This is a fun idea. But it is seldom fun. It’s too busy being serious. Will I recommend it? Yes. But not to everyone.

Perversely, I really want to see this adapted for cinema. Spike Jonze would make this sing.