I’ve just finished a highly-original adventure story narrated by a gorilla. Goes by the name of Sally Jones. Brilliant at chess. Also excellent with ships’ engines and the odd accordion in need of repair.
It comes to us from Sweden where it has already received several prestigious awards, and I’m recommending it for advanced readers ages 10 to adult.
The Murderer’s Ape, written and illustrated by Jakob Wegelius, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves
originally published in Sweden in 2014; English translation published in 2017 by Delacorte Press
I fell in love with it the moment I got my hands on it. This is a book that revels in its physicality and makes every non-digital reader coo with pleasure. Its stout, tome-like size and shape, exotic turquoise cover image, gorgeous end papers decorated with illustrated maps, stylish typography, swoon-worthy catalogue of key characters, and handsome illustrations heading every chapter all add up to one visual treat, a striking gateway to the world unfolding in its story.
One of the endpapers, in its original Swedish.
Plus, there are 80 chapters! 80! Most of them quite, quite short. Immensely satisfying, that is, to polish off 80 chapters, wouldn’t you say?
Of course, the main question is: Has a good yarn been spun? And the answer is: Absolutely.
The novel is framed as a typewritten account of a hair-raising, far-flung, nail-biter of an adventure, reported by its main participant, Sally Jones, a gorilla of most surprising capabilities.
As our story begins, Sally is happily working with her dear friend, a good-hearted sea captain, Henry Koskela, on his little tramp steamer, the Hudson Queen, running cargoes to ports far and wide. While in Lisbon, the two of them are hired by a fellow who turns out to be up to his neck in shady business dealings. Seriously murky stuff going on here. Two treacherous seconds later and Henry is in prison, falsely accused of murder. Sally, bereft, must navigate a world that certainly is unprepared for her while simultaneously following clues that will clear Henry’s name.
Those clues will take her to exotic locations, stunning new adventures, and life-threatening confrontations. She meets a huge cast of characters, some kind, some cruel; some loyal, some treacherous; a wealthy, petulant maharaja; an accordion repairman; an infectious disease specialist; an unscrupulous businessman. She travels in rickshaws, biplanes, and ships’ holds; dines in opulence and hides in cemeteries.
It’s a sweeping odyssey, a bit reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Around the World. In children’s literature, the most akin novel I can think of is Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, though it’s much more suspenseful and plot-driven than Hitty.
Wegelius does not pander to children’s vocabularies or life experiences, giving this book a more classic tone than many contemporary novels. The narrative is peppered with foreign proper nouns which may snooker novice readers but will add to the immersive experience for the savvy. Sally Jones appears to be a highly educated gorilla who writes her memoir in sophisticated, mature prose. And although this is an account of murder and mayhem, the narrative flows along unhurriedly, with lengthy descriptive passages and internal musings. For children who require a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter, this will be a new pace.
My squeamish alarms went off only one time in recommending this to children due to some oblique references to spousal abuse fairly early in the account. I’d have been happier without that element.
This book can’t win many of the big American awards, not being by an American author, but it can win the Batchelder Award for books originally published in a different language and subsequently translated into English and brought to the U.S. — and I hope it does!