Tor, 1994 (1997 reprint), 312 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56533-9
This is definitely not the first novel you would expect from Douglas Preston. Now firmly established as a thriller writer (usually, but not always collaborating with Lincoln Child on yarns such as The Relic, The Ice Limit or The Cabinet of Curiosities), Preston can command a sizable audience and a regular spot on the bestseller lists: his readers can rely on his name for slick thrills and mass-market entertainment.
But his first novel, published one year before the runaway success of The Relic, proves to be a very different book. Though it’s concerned about death, it’s hardly a thriller. Its form and execution is very different from the rest of Preston’s work.
Taking the form of an oral history, Jennie starts by putting its readers in a frame of reference that may or may not be our real world. Though careful pseudo-historical references and self-insertion in the story as the researcher pulling together the accounts of several witnesses, Preston manages to create a reasonable doubt that the story he’s about to tell is historical truth.
It begins in 1965, as an anthropologist goes to Africa and brings back a chimpanzee, the titular Jennie. Thanks to the circumstances of Jennie’s birth, the anthropologist decides to raise her as a member of his own family, applying his theories about primate intelligence to an authentic subject. As the book advances, we follow the family’s efforts in dealing with Jennie’s maturation, and the effects she has on the people surrounding her. People may not forget that Jennie isn’t completely human, but what if Jennie herself doesn’t realize it?
The real intent of the novel, of course, is to tug at readers’ hearts and make them feel that the differences between animals and humans are far thinner than they can expect. You can probably fill in the blanks of the plot yourself, especially if you’re familiar some of the more sentimentalist fiction about primates. Yes, Jennie proves to be just as smart as her human siblings. Yes, some humans act in a cruel and despicable fashion. Yes, the tale ends on a very somber note. Few will be surprised to find that the Author’s Note at the end of the book has pages of contact coordinates for organizations dedicated to the protection of primates. I suppose that some readers will either find the “provocative questions about our relationship to, and treatment of, other species” (thanks, Library Journal) either trite or self-evident, depending on their own preexisting prejudices. Some of the story beats are repetitive or contrived (it’s a handy thing to have a minister as a neighbour when you want to discuss matters of death and faith), especially given how the tale progresses toward its inevitable ending.
But if I’m less than enthusiastic about the novel’s overall dramatic arc, there’s no use denying that it’s effective, in large part due to the way it’s told. The fictional “oral history” of Jennie’s life allows Preston some room for literary games and showy prose. The characters of the story don’t speak the same way or reflect upon the events in quite the same manner. There’s a fun sense of triangulation in trying to piece together the “real” story from the different viewpoints of characters who can’t stand each other. Dr. Pamela Prentiss, the driven behaviourist who comes to act as a foil for the rest of the characters, is a particularly entertaining character to follow.
While Jennie is based on numerous case studies (and, in a sense, could be viewed as a romanticized compendium of such experiments), it helps a lot that a certain “Douglas Preston” is, from the beginning “Note to the reader”, a character in his own book: a writer who tries to interview as many people as possible about Jennie, making significant efforts to track down and meet his subjects and (eventually) occasionally being shut off from any further contact. (“Turn that goddamn tape recorder off. I mean it. Now.” [P.290]) The sense of two stories mixing together is very satisfying, and adds another level of interest in the book.
I may not personally understand the fascination with primates, but the book will find a natural audience with those who love stories featuring chimpanzees. And yet, while I’m obviously no fan of sappy “Aren’t those animals just like us humans? Aren’t us humans just like animal?” stories, Jennie still manages be a gripping read with a conclusion that is far more affecting that I would have thought from a description of the book alone. In that particular respect, at least, Jennie exhibits the qualities that would late make of Preston a best-selling authors. While Jennie is very different from his best-known thrillers, it’s more than worth a look for fans of good popular fiction: even if you know where it’s going, it’s a memorable ride.