J.J.’s parents are both deaf, so he grew up with Auslan (Australian sign language) as his native "tongue," although he is not deaf and speaks English perfectly. After a disastrous marriage, J.J. returns to live with his parents and to teach sign language at the Deaf Institute. Two students in his beginners’ class befriend him. They are Clive, an elderly man world renowned as a leader of the animal rights movement, and his much younger wife Stella, who is a poet. They soon present J.J. with a mysterious proposition: would he be willing to provide private lessons for their "step-daughter" at their home? We soon learn that their "step-daughter," Wish, is actually a young female gorilla, which they "rescued" from a research laboratory.

At first J.J. is reluctant because he is aware that the purported mastery of signing by non-human primates is not only controversial, but very limited, even if true. However, he discovers that Wish has remarkable cognitive abilities. She learns Auslan quickly and even begins to converse using metaphor and expressing complex topics.

Eventually her story is revealed. She had undergone fetal surgery to remove her adrenal glands, which evidently limit cortical growth in gorillas. Unconstrained by her adrenals (although receiving daily cortisone injections), Wish has developed intelligence far beyond that of other gorillas.

Nonetheless, she is still a sexually mature female gorilla. She falls in "love" with J.J. who, after initially rebuffing her, mates with her. J.J., by the way is quite obese, and so he is much more attractive to Wish than the other human males she encounters, who are all so un-gorilla-like. J.J. and Wish live in connubial bliss for a brief period, until Clive decides to prosecute J.J. for sexually abusing his gorilla, since presumably gorillas cannot give informed consent to sexual activity with humans. (Of course, Wish can and does, because of her super brain, but this concept is a bit too subtle for the frenzied media and the legal system.) After J.J. is arrested and she is removed to a local zoo, Wish becomes depressed and commits suicide. Clive drops the charges, after which the story lumbers to a generally unhappy ending.


The preceding sketch conveys a sense of the weirdness of this novel, but perhaps fails to convey how whimsical and engaging the story is. The major theme is, of course, the varieties of communication. And the book is loaded with drawings of hands making Auslan signs for scores of words and concepts, along with accompanying text describing the elegance and gracefulness of sign as a form of communication. The reader learns to expect a visual sign analog for important ideas and feelings as they are introduced into the story.

Interestingly, the politics of American imperialism enter into this aspect of the novel as well. The Deaf Institute has begun to switch-over from Auslan to American Sign Language (ASL) as its primary "tongue" because ASL--like all things American--has become the world standard. J.J., however, is fighting a rearguard action to preserve the Australian language.

The story’s satire centers on the animal rights movement. Clive is the author of many best-selling books detailing the torture of animals by humans. [It occurred to me that he might well be a take-off on the Australian philosopher and animal rights activist, Peter Singer.] Yet, he is also the instigator of the experiment to teach Wish sign language and human expression, which ultimately turns out to be just as cruel and inhuman as the meat industry--after all, Wish commits suicide. [Of course, Clive isn’t responsible for the original "big brain" experiment that led to the situation in the first place.]

J.J. is the tragicomic anti-hero. Throughout the book his obesity is a recurring theme--it helped lead to his failed marriage, it explains his klutziness, and so forth--yet in the end his obesity makes him especially attractive to Wish and his desire to be loved (even if by a gorilla), ultimately leads to the novel’s climax--note the pun--and denouement.


Angus & Robertson

Place Published

Sydney, Australia



Page Count