Book review: Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

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How does a 13-year-old boy cope with having a chimp as his half brother?

Canadian author Kenneth Oppel’s thought-provoking novel for teenagers provides a unique and entertaining perspective on the age-old subjects of family, first love, ethics and growing up.

Oppel is rapidly becoming one of the greatest contemporary storytellers with his highly imaginative books winning a raft of prizes as well as millions of fans.

Half Brother is one of his most impressive works yet... a moving and superbly blended examination of both the scientific world’s obsession with animal behaviour and the growing pains of a teenage boy.

Along the way we experience the whole gamut of emotions from humour and horror to anger and pity, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house when the last page is turned.

It’s 1973 and Ben Tomlin’s life is turned upside down when his research scientist parents bring home a baby chimp to raise as a human child.

Zan is only eight days old when he’s whisked away from his mother and installed in the Tomlin household in the wilds of Canada as part of his professor dad’s new experiment to see if chimps can learn language.

Teaching a chimp how to understand words through sign language isn’t Ben’s idea of fun, but then he didn’t want to leave his school and friends in Toronto anyway.

‘We are the weirdest family in the world,’ he muses as Zan is given his own suite of rooms which include a high chair, buckets for nappies, shelves piled with toys and a cot complete with mobile.

Mum’s never been happier as she feeds and bathes the new arrival and carries him everywhere in a colourful African sling.

Inevitably, Ben gets caught up in the excitement of a project which has more of a sci-fi feel to it than a cool and calculated experiment.

Before long Ben is stroking, grooming and becoming very protective towards his new half brother who has started to endear himself to everyone in the local community.

And while Zan is winning hearts and minds, Ben is also launching his own experiment – Project Jennifer – a cunning plan to attract the attention of budding beauty Jennifer Godwin.

However, the best-laid plans can go terribly wrong, and as both the Zan and Jennifer projects start to fail, Ben must learn to fight his feelings of anger and jealousy and devise a way to save the chimp from a fate worse than death.

Ben and Zan’s unforgettable relationship lies at the heart of this clever, classy and compelling morality tale - heart-breaking, funny and wise, it’s a children’s classic.

(David Fickling Books, hardback, £10.99)