cover image The Woman and the Ape

The Woman and the Ape

Peter Heg, Peter Hoeg. Farrar Straus Giroux, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-374-29203-4

No one will ever be able to claim that HYeg doesn't know how to hook a reader. The newest ecothriller by the author of Smilla's Sense of Snow opens with the deceptively simple sentence: ""An ape was approaching London."" What the vague syntax and flat affect omit could (and does) fill a book. For instance, the ""ape""-who's dubbed Erasmus-turns out not to be ""some sort of dwarf chimpanzee"" as eminent zoologist Adam Burden claims, but a brand new species of ape that just might have the potential for language and higher cognitive functions. The opening line gives little indication of the hubbub Erasmus will raise in a few short paragraphs when he causes the Ark, the ship that has carried him captive to London, to lose its crew and plow mast-first into busy St. Katharine's Dock. Or, a few pages later, when he leads Dr. Burden and his minions on a merry chase through the streets of London. Or, a couple of chapters down the road, when Erasmus seduces Madelene, who just happens to be Burden's beautiful alcoholic wife, and takes her away for a week-long lovefest at a wild animal park. The first line gives no indication of all this because the story and its characters are mere window-dressing for HYeg. While he's a fluid writer who is competent at telling stories, it's in the realm of ideas that he excels. There are long passages in which he analyzes Erasmus and human emotions and London itself in terms that are by turns mechanistic and organic. On one page, London is a ""gigantic mycelium,"" a fungus. On a later page, we discover that London is a worn-out machine,"" full of blind spots and flat points."" At the end of this fine and diverting novel, Madelene explains how she's always pictured angels, and her definition could as easily stand for Erasmus or London or even the Earth. ""It's one third god, one third animal, and one third human."" 100,000 first printing; major ad/promo. (Dec.) FYI: The movie version of Smilla's Sense of Snow, starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne, is scheduled for release in March 1997.