The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5
An unusual (and engaging) book — the narrative felt so real I had to remind myself it was fiction, not memoir.

Filipino-American writer Christina Klein (Ting) travels back to the Philippines — ostensibly to write a book about an episode in Filipino history featuring a headhunter tribe’s role in Coney Island’s “human zoo.” A short year after the election of a dictatorial leader, Ting experiences the new Manila superimposed on the remembered culture and practices of her youth, which in turn are layered on stories and experiences from a more distant past as told through her historical research and the stories of her many elderly Titas and Titos.

The writing is fluid and provides fascinating linkages over time and class — her interactions span people with varied backgrounds, living conditions, and political opinions, from her aristocratic family to earnest socialists to those in the current circles of power. The dialog perfectly distills different perspectives and her ongoing reflection gives us insight into her personal journey to understand and evolve her sense of morality in a situation where nothing at all is perfectly clear. It’s masterfully done, IMHO.

As an aside, I learned a lot about Philippine history, although it is a backdrop to the story rather than a comprehensive presentation — 7,000 islands and 182 non mutually intelligible languages!

Some good quotes:

“Morality is the spine of fiction, even if it is most often twisted and deformed.” <— my fav

“They liked microphones and Spam. America’s streets and classrooms had instilled in many a sense of inferiority and in some a seething resentment at being brown in a white world. The Fil-Ams suffered from the shame of otherness, while Filipinos born and educated in the Philippines struggled with disdain for gauche American culture. In the States, we were all seen as being of the same tribe, but it was, at times, a flawed taxonomy.”

“This was to illustrate the colorful ways of the backward Filipinos and justify American’s occupation of the islands. Why exterminate all the brutes when you could display them and make a profit?”

“Inchoy watched me watching the children, and I felt my perspective slowly shift from mine to his: from my joy at the beauty of the children to Inchoy’s perception of forced child labor. He flicked his eyebrows at me to drive home the point.”

“Tita Rosa’s ambush resolved itself quickly: this was Manila and duty presented itself in clear, direct ways. Resignation was the backbone of survival here. Resistance only created anxiety.”

“The results of Gumboc’s presidency are that the poor live in fear for their lives and with reason. Gumboc’s army of assassins operates in a price per head economy and there is no due process. These people are murdered for money as part of a government-sanctioned program.”

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 10th, 2021.

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