Title & Author: Sometime Like Apes, J. C. Denham
Genre & Publication Date: Dystopian, October 23, 2014
Book Description: “When Caliban wakes up, shackled and monstrous, he remembers nothing. The shadowy world of the circus he now inhabits and the bleak, unobtainable landscape beyond are alien to him. He finds himself horribly deformed and forced to perform with a litany of fantastical, often enslaved others. This disparate and vivid cast, as well as the circus’ enigmatic and evil proprietor, the master, stand between him, the memory of his old life, and one new and free. As he travels through an ever changing landscape of abrasive, absurd cities and beautiful countryside, Caliban befriends Pockets and Tick, two clowns inseparable both from each other, their alcoholism, and the circus. Together they must overcome the master and make sense of themselves and the new world around them. None of it is as it seems.”
First Line: I grew out of the earth into a night so cold it was sharp and dry like broken glass.
My Take: This novella was provided to me by the author for review.
Not often do I come across a book that not only captivates me but stays in my thoughts long afterward. This is one such story.
It begins with a birth, but a motherless kind. A life issued from pain and darkness and fear. Then the journey begins, and bit by bit we learn more of what happened to the main character, Caliban, and how he came to be in that circus.
In a lot of ways, experiencing the world vicariously through him was like being a newborn again, seeing everything with fresh eyes, stripped of their cynicism and indifference. Everything was imbued with wonder and curiosity, even the ugly things.
The characters are incredibly three dimensional. The clowns, Pockets and Tick, who befriend Caliban, pass their lives in a haze of pain and self-loathing, yet there is a kindness to them, a tragic gentility. Even as they repulse, they draw you to them as well. The animal tamer also has this conflicting magnetism to him. He seems so stoic and hard on the outside, but that is just a mask. Beneath the surface is a well of empathy so deep he is almost destroyed by it.
At times I wasn’t sure where the story was going but it didn’t bother me. The protagonist himself does not know the destination. This adds to the realism of it all and the author keeps the tension such that it’s impossible to look away. We’re on the train with Caliban and the tracks keep us both from making independent turns.
This a dark tale but yet there is friendship and laughter, even when surrounded by cruelty. Caliban leads the reader through it, shining a light on the path ahead. Despite the cage of his life, despite the slavery and the humiliation, the internalized degradation, there is still hope.
The Magical: Spellbinding prose. The imagery was like none I’d ever seen before, with words I’d never considered for description but that somehow make their subject more vital, more visceral on the page. I found myself going back to reread whole passages just to consume them again.
A couple of examples (because I must):
“The tavern was a sun, and people swung around it like planets, moons, and comets.”
“Once in the late day the horizon, on the other side than the sea, seemed a monochrome stencil. Its features penciled words, black against a moon mostly set. The sky paper-white except for a jagged language printed upon it in the black shapes of trees or the occasional rooftop parentheses. Sometimes the silver smudge of a cloud.”
There are many more but these are a couple of favorites.
The Mundane: A touch of confusion in the beginning and it took a moment to orient myself in the story, but I sense that was intentional. Things are always a little muddled right after birth.
Summary of Thoughts: A lesson in freedom. So often the cage we find ourselves in is of our own making. Fear and self-doubt, perhaps internalized from what outside sources have led us to believe, are still shackles we secure to our own legs. We need only decide on courage and remove them to change our destiny. A beautiful allegory for life that is subtly conveyed in this tale. The author weaves these themes without preaching and illustrates them on the page for the reader to observe, like paint on a canvas. Absolutely wonderful.
Many thanks to author J. C. Denham for providing a copy of the novella to review!
Curious what others thought? Check out Amazon’s reviews (UK page) here
If you’re in the U.S. the purchase page can be found here
To learn more about the author and his work, explore his website (which includes a first chapter preview!) here