This novel deserves ten stars, rather than five. Being a huge fan of Peter Høeg’s work, you can imagine my delight when I stumbled upon an edition published in 1997 of The Woman and the Ape. I’d never heard of the novel before, but the fact that my favourite Danish author had written it and the cover was suitably quirky (not the one featured here, but far better), I couldn’t wait to get home and start turning the book’s yellowed pages.
The experience was like entering a different world and being amazed at every corner turned, the beauty of the writing, the intensity, often the wit (I laughed out loud many times), the total daring of the author to write something so controversial and anti-establishment. Yes, my mouth dropped open a few times. Thoughts entered my mind such as “whoa, he’s actually getting away with this”, “this book must be banned in some countries”, “only the Danes could be this quirky”, and “how can he make something that’s so taboo seem erotic?”
To say too much about the story would be to issue too many spoilers. The twists, turns, and surprises are part of its charm and excitement. I just love the main character Madelene, who’s Danish, although the story is set in London. At the start of the novel, she’s a secret alcoholic and a decorative wife to be wheeled out at the end of each day, to play her part in sweetening her husband’s evenings and nights. It’s a part she plays well at first, until she meets an ape (not an ordinary ape, mind you, but quite an exceptional one). And so the escapade begins, full of high jinx and dare, moments of extreme tenderness, the full works.
For every answer this novel gives, it poses twenty questions more. I keep having to remind myself that it’s a fable, yet one that my mind keeps returning to. I’ve driven family, friends, acquaintances mad trying to persuade them to read it. They look at me as if to say, why would I want to read a novel about a woman and an ape? And I can’t tell them too much because to do so would take the thrill out of their reading experience should they succumb to my pleas.
Many contemporary readers seem to hanker after long and longer novels. In other words, more pages, better value for money, but this isn’t always the case. Long can mean rambling, in need of editing, things better said in fewer words. The Woman and The Ape is a short novel (229 pages in the edition I read). The writing is tight, disciplined, and flawless, literary and yet totally unpretentious and accessible.
If you’re not broad-minded and are easily shocked, then this isn’t the novel for you. For those who love anything thought-provoking and are in possession of an extremely quirky sense of humour, then I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. It’s quite superb and unique.
Peter Høeg, you are the best!