13-year-old Ben Tomlin is the son of two research scientists. Uprooted from school and friends in Toronto, he resents the move to Victoria so that his father can take up a promotion at the University. When it turns out that his parents’ new project centres on a baby chimp that will share house space with the family, jealousy compounds his difficult feelings. His mother empathetically suggests he names the chimp and he is co-opted to care for Zan, as well as assisting in teaching him ASL sign language. Gradually both fascination with the project and affection for Zan replace his hostility and time with Zan becomes something of a refuge from pressures at the challenging private school Ben’s ambitious father has enrolled him in. He co-opts scientific insights to start his own project to become an ‘alpha male’ at school and attract Jennifer Godwin, the cool daughter of his father’s boss – with mixed results.
An average student, who has always struggled with ‘letters and numbers’, Ben has an alert eye for his father’s impatience when Zan doesn’t satisfy his scientific criteria quickly enough and displays ‘difficult’ chimp behaviour. Peter, one of his father’s team of research students assigned to the project, proves a sympathetic ally, but when a visiting professor of linguistics effectively condemns the validity of the research on the basis that Zan is only mimicking ASL signs and not creatively using language, it looks as if the project is doomed and Zan’s fate dangerously uncertain.
Ben and Peter’s subsequent attempts to find an adequate sanctuary for Zan dramatically foreground the book’s concern with issues of scientific responsibility. More fundamentally still, Half Brother confronts young readers with profound questions as to what it means to be human and where humanity lies on a continuum with animals. Through variously touching, humorous and dismaying parallels between chimp and human behaviour, Oppel makes a case for a little more humility from the ‘superior’ species. He also weighs in gently on the ‘nurture’ side of the debate in what amounts to a riposte to Dr Tomlin’s behaviourist stance, through a sympathetic glance at Ben’s chilly upbringing.
His own imaginative empathy creates a cast of always credible characters, whether chimp or human. And in the case of Ben and Zan, a supremely moving cross-species’ friendship. The book is only marred by an overly sentimental dream-epilogue.