When I heard that there was a book on the Man Booker Longlist that was the memoir of a celebrity ape I have to say I had a slightly snobbish attitude of ‘how on earth can something like that be on the Man Booker Longlist?’ I mean it didn’t fit in with my image of the Man Booker Award which instantly makes me think of stunning prose over thought provoking plot and this didn’t sound quite like that sort of book. How could you take a book that was a fake memoir by a chimpanzee seriously? I should have followed my own motto and not judged a book by its cover/blurb and let the actual reading of the book do the talking as it were.
James Lever’s debut novel ‘Me Cheeta’ is, yes that’s right, the fictional memoir of a famous ape. Yes ‘Cheeta’ is indeed the legendary sidekick of Tarzan and the cult classic 1950’s movies that took the world by storm and spawned many a sequel. Now I have to admit it takes a few pages of getting used to but once I was involved in the story I had to keep reminding me that it was fiction and that a chimp couldn’t actually tell you a story like this even if it was true and even if they wanted to.
Now retired and living happily as an artist in Palm Springs Cheeta takes a look back over the crazy and fabulous life that he has lived and of course the golden era of Hollywood in the 1950’s. If you like the era (and stars like Cary Grant, Mickey Rooney, Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn) then you will love this book as it brings the Hollywood hey day very much to life. It is also filled with gossip and the cult of celebrity which of course right now is a huge market, come on whom of us can actually say that they have never read a famous person’s autobiography? This is the gossip from the times when production companies made stars what they were, decided their climb and devised their demise. It is also from the time when stars were stars for talent (on the whole) and for a long time.
The star of this book though of course is Cheeta and his story, which also includes quite a saddening childhood and period of capture, even if he does very honestly admit that he may have added violins and slight exaggerations in order to sell more copies of the book. This honesty both works in terms of being incredibly funny making me laugh out loud on the tube and also in places incredibly, and slightly unexpectedly, moving.
I really, really enjoyed this book and having read it am thrilled that it was on the Man Booker Longlist and quite sad that it didn’t make it onto the short list. I think this is an incredibly modern novel that would get many more people interested in reading the shortlist and reaching a market that it may sometimes miss. Someone said on an earlier blog they ‘never thought someone would seriously consider’ this book as going to the short list compared to the other books and my question is “why not”? It’s a compelling read with a great unreliable narrator and made it very difficult for me to put down, I laughed, I was moved and all this combined to a great read for me and some of the other shortlisted books haven’t had that effect on me.
What are your thoughts? Do you think a book like this should be on the Longlist? Last year Child 44 caused some controversy and I think that’s just the Man Booker moving with the times and being inclusive of all writers and more diverse, do you agree/disagree? Have you read this book?