The Human Zoo

By Sabina Murray; Grove Atlantic Press

Sabina Murray’s previous novel, the New York Times Notable Book “Valiant Gentlemen,” was an ambitious and meaty historical novel about Roger Casement and Herbert Ward, former African explorers from late 19th- and early 20th-century England whose friendship shattered over the issue of Irish nationalism.

In her newest book, “The Human Zoo,” Murray, who teaches in the MFA program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explores another aspect of history, this time in the Philippines, where centuries of Spanish and American colonialism, a multiethnic population, and now a brutal dictatorship create the backdrop for a story set in modern-day Manila.

The book is a mix of political thriller, a meditation on history and colonialism, and an often wry observation of modern Filipino society, as well as an account of one woman’s search for identity. It’s a credit to Murray, who’s of mixed Filipino-American ancestry herself and was raised in Australia, the Philippines and the U.S, that’s she able to pull these different threads together.

“The Human Zoo” is narrated by Christina “Ting” Klein, a Filipino-American woman — “Fil-Am” for short — who’s left her husband, an American, in New York to pay an unannounced visit to her 90-year-old Aunt Rosa in Manila. Ting, a successful writer and journalist in her late 40s, is at loose ends in her marriage and her life; she’s not sure want she wants to do “other than the fact that I’d wanted to get out of New York.”

Back in Manila, Ting finds a warm welcome from her aunt and other extended family members, who are part of an old aristocracy of sorts, part Spanish and part Filipino. That greeting is something of a balm for Ting, who, raised in both the U.S. and in Manila, has felt out of place in both: “During my years in the Philippines, I felt American, but back in the United States, I felt alien. Later, my husband would introduce me as an American, my whiteness assumed.”

Ting does have a new book project in mind, which is the source of the title of Murray’s novel. Ting wants to examine the grotesque practice, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of American entrepreneurs shipping native tribespeople from the Philippines to the U.S. and displaying them as exotic creatures at carnivals and world fairs.

But the new book proves slow going, in part because of the distractions caused by the regime of the current Philippine president, Procopio “Copo” Gumboc, a full-bore strongman (and a stand-in for the country’s real authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte) who champions extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users. 

As she renews old friendships with people such as Inchoy, a gay college professor and a socialist, and Chet, an ex-boyfriend turned business tycoon, Ting finds herself somewhat adrift, her sense of detachment a reflection of her in-between status as neither fully Filipino nor American. There’s also an almost physical sense of torpor brought on by the stifling humidity, frequent downpours and constant gridlock in Manila, where a half-hour drive can easily become a two-hour crawl.

“An unrelenting stream of jeepneys with their singing horns zoomed and halted unpredictably in the street,” Ting relates. “When traffic brought the entire parade to a standstill, pedestrians wove their way in and around, filling every vacant space.… A few trees struggled upward between the buildings, waving their feathery leaves, as if trying to fan themselves against the heavy air.”

As well, Murray offers some hilarious but biting descriptions of the extremes of wealth in the Philippines, in which the super-rich, including some members of her family, recognize no limits in a country where millions live in grinding poverty: “My cousin Jim had … embarked on a [home] building project somewhere between Versailles and the pyramids.”

And the now-married Chet, who’s pushing Ting to have an affair with him, lives in “a palace humming with Freon and money. You could feel the coldness of the polished marble floor just by looking at it.”

Ting’s idyll is growing more complicated, however. She’s been asked to show Laird, another Fil-Am and the fiancé of one her cousins, around during his visit to Manila, but suddenly Laird has gone missing. Then a Filipino woman she’s grown close to is found murdered, quite likely by police. And just what is Chet’s connection to the regime? Why does he refuse to talk to her about any of his business dealings?

Chet’s wife, C.G., also calls out Ting for her seeming detachment from the concerns of regular Filipinos: “You just wander around as if nothing matters…. You’re like a black hole. Everything is fine and then you walk past and everything is destroyed.”

There’s much going on in “The Human Zoo,” which seems appropriate for a country made up, as Ting observes, of more than 7,000 islands and 182 separate languages, where Islamic terrorism flares in the country’s south, and the violence and corruption of Gumboc’s regime threaten to blow everything to smithereens.

And even as she sketches this broad portrait of a world few American readers likely know much about, Murray, a PEN/Faulkner winner, keeps readers guessing about exactly where the novel is headed. As one reviewer writes, “The Human Zoo unfolds like the best of stories — one compelling detail following the next until an entire world emerges, full of revelations and aching truths.”

Hector Fox and the Giant Quest

By Astrid Sheckels; Islandport Press

When it comes to kids’ books, it’s hard to go wrong with anthropomorphic animals. Couple that with some lustrous illustrations of woods and fields, add in an adventure, and you’ve got a potential winner.

“Hector Fox and the Giant Quest,” by Greenfield artist and children’s writer Astrid Sheckels, checks all those boxes. The story, aimed at children ages 3 to 7, follows Hector Fox and his friends — a marten, a mouse, a rabbit, and a skunk — as they read an exciting fairy tale and then decide to take a trip of their own to a place known as the Forbidden Marsh. Rumor has it there might be a giant there.

The friends set off from Hector’s cozy home inside a hollow tree and enter a dark forest that seems a little scary, until they meet their big friend Rufus Bear, who joins the expedition. But what exactly awaits them in the Forbidden Marsh?

Sheckels’ watercolor and oil paintings bring the story alive with a style that the artist calls “a mix of classic realism and whimsy.” She’s illustrated three previous books for the publisher of “Hector and the Giant Quest,” Islandport Press of Yarmouth, Maine. The publisher is also planning to release three additional titles by Sheckels that will feature Hector and his friends.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.