Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The One and Only Ivan

Ivan is a Silverback Gorilla whose domain is a small glass, metal and cement cage in the Big Top Mall just off the I-95. He has been there for a long time.

Ivan is kept company in the Big Top Mall by an elephant named Stella, a handful of humans (some nice, some not so), Bob the stray dog, and some other animals he doesn’t talk to so much. The Silverback’s job in the wild is to protect his family, but Ivan hasn’t had a proper family to protect for a long time. Until Ruby arrives. And then he makes a promise, a promise that is going to prove very hard to keep: a promise to protect Ruby and to make sure she doesn’t spend her life where he has.

The One and Only Ivan is really wonderful. It’s fantastically written and has a really beautiful character at its heart who is at once strong, brave and caring. Ivan likes art, not that many of the humans can understand what he is drawing; he likes bananas and sleeping, and throwing me-balls; he has a quiet heart and uses his words carefully, but when he finds someone to protect, his natural instincts are called to the surface and he must find a way to get people’s attention.

Despite winning America's Newbery Medal in 2013, the only reason I came across this book was thanks to a passing comment by the author’s husband, and so it feels like a really special discovery, and a book that I’m really eager to share with everyone. I read it in 24 hours because I just did not want to put it down. The writing has an almost sparse, careful quality, and some of the turns of phrase are quite magical, like when Ruby hits out at the brutality of her keeper:

“It is the beautiful mad I have ever heard,” Ivan tells us. 

And when it comes to denouement, Ivan is pretty scared. Things are changing and they are changing fast, but if he wants to save Ruby, he has to show her the way. Is it the right choice? Can he take those important, final steps? Does he have the courage to follow her?

Katherine Applegate was inspired to write the story by a real gorilla, also named Ivan, who spent 27 years in solitary captivity before animal welfare groups secured his transfer to Zoo Atlanta, but as she began to think about Ivan, another story emerged – thus most of the other characters are fictional, but the story still feels impeccably true. A perfect book for anyone aged 9 to 90.

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