This YA novel may seem like a simplistic ‘issue’ story, but is in fact a layered narrative about the morals of anthropomorphizing animals and what it means to be family.
Thirteen-year-old Ben Tomlin is not excited about his new “baby brother” Zan, a chimpanzee inserted into his family purely for scientific purposes. His scientist parents are hoping to teach Zan sign language and cross-foster him as a human child to see what results. At first, Ben is resentful – the family was uprooted across the country to a new academic institution for his father to receive the necessary grant money – but he quickly bonds with Zan, forming a closer relationship than the one he has with his demanding and critical father. The novel accurately details the process of the scientific experiment and its gains and setbacks. Other characters are introduced as secondary caregivers for Zan, and different perspectives on the morality of teaching Zan to communicate and learn human behaviours are slowly raised.
The emotions are believable, especially Ben’s frustrations with his family and his passion for ensuring Zan’s future happiness. Despite the teenaged protagonist, this novel will raise interesting questions for adult readers with an interest in animal rights, nature versus nurture, or the ethics of scientific research. The plot is not particularly surprising, but the well-drawn characters make the journey worthwhile. Half Brother does not read as a novel with an agenda; instead, it offers multiple perspectives on very emotionally fraught issues and will give all reflective readers something to ponder.