Peter Hoeg, the Danish author of the surprise international bestseller, “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” has concocted a new book that’s as awkward as its own half-breed protagonist. “The Woman and the Ape” centers on a captured ape of an unknown species — a missing link that’s nefariously smuggled to London to be the centerpiece of an expanded zoo and animal research center.
Hoeg has tried to write what might best be termed a feminist/animal-liberationist/futurist/social-disaster thriller, and the result is half bird and half rhino — an ungainly monster that never gets off the ground. The Woman, a pampered, upper-crusty Dane named Madelene, is the wife of zookeeper Adam, and she’s the only one who can save The Ape from grisly testing and permanent imprisonment. After they run off together, The Ape quickly learns English, and (naturally) one thing leads to another — and we are faced with some truly absurd cross-species pollination. This happens in a paradisaical animal preserve in Northern England, a place of Darwinian simplicity where the humans have left the animals to fend for themselves within the confines of the forest.
Madelene and The Ape leave the garden only when they realize that Adam will most likely kidnap other Apes. Hoeg deftly shows Madelene’s entrapment by her social and marital status, and he parallels this with the societal imprisonment of The Ape and all other animals. Unfortunately, Hoeg gets tangled up in his own ambitions — he rambles on and on about the fate of the animals and mankind, and the threadbare plot can barely hold up all of the saccharinely earnest sermonizing. Hoeg’s intentions are obviously genuinely charitable (he is donating all proceeds of this book to a self-started fund that helps Third World women and children). But from such a talented writer this is a surprisingly flat, disorganized and sadly unconvincing novel.