The Murderer’s Ape

posted in: Jakob Wegelius, Peter Graves | 4

Some stories silently put down roots in your imagination, catching you quite unawares when they finally blossom filling your head with dizzying and evocative swirls of surprise, excitement and intrigue. The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius, translated by Peter Graves was exactly one such story for me.

Satisfying and luxurious old-fashioned storytelling made fresh and original with a generous cast of remarkable characters and a panoply of imagination-drenched settings, The Murderer’s Ape is, perhaps not surprisingly, a tricky book to sum up in a convincing elevator pitch, but here’s my attempt: Following a period in the life of a rather marvellous, if also extraordinary, gorilla – Sally Jones – who not only understands what people say to her but who can also fix intricate engines and restore finely crafted vintage musical instruments, this is a story of mystery, perfidy and profound friendship.

Please put any bafflement to one side and hunker down between the pages of this swashbuckling trans-continental adventure, colourfully brought to life with compelling, tantalising detail; let yourself be mesmerised and you’ll be richly rewarded, especially if books such as de Fombelle’s Vango or McNeill’s The Beginning Woods are ones to make you salivate.

Although in reviews I like to suggest comparable books, to provide a hook and context, in this particular case I do so with some hesitation, for such suggestions of resemblance are somewhat unfair; this is a book so original it felt like the Story Mould had been broken and made completely anew. The unusual characters, elaborate plots and unfashionable time-taking pace won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the world’s bookshelves are infinitely richer for the vistas, friends and foes waiting to meet you inside this book.

With such a dazzling, panoramic embrace, it is hard to do the entirety of The Murderer’s Ape full justice, so I’ll just draw out three features that especially caught my heart and soul.

First, the illustrations. My goodness me. These are such a delight and like the tale in words which unravel and then weave back together again, they are rare and beautiful, setting off each chapter they head like a jewel in a crown (… or should I say jewels in a turban?) Minutely detailed and adding an enormous amount of atmosphere and lively characterization, the illustrations’ etching-like quality further adds to the sense that this novel might almost have been discovered in an attic 100 years after it was originally written.

Next, I have to highlight one particular moment in the book that stopped me in my tracks. Without giving away any spoilers there comes a point in the book’s epic unfolding plot when one utterly self-centred and blinkered character finds himself – thanks to events he’s part of – able to think of others for the first time in his life. He puts himself in someone else’s shoes, and even has the self awareness to be surprised that this is something he is now capable of. Witnessing this quiet yet deeply revelatory moment was profoundly moving. We often talk of how books have the power to engender and nurture empathy, but here is a case when we powerfully witness that development of understanding, that ability to really think how others might feel and to be happy that our new understanding alters our behaviour.

The third aspect of this book which completely seduced me was its unabashed revelry in the glory of music, music making and musical instruments. In particular the special place held tight in the warm bosom of this story for the humble accordion delighted me beyond measure. This is an instrument I have a particularly soft spot for, and to see it so lovingly depicted in both word and image swept me of my feet.

An excerpt from The Murderer’s Ape, reproduced with permission.

Enveloped in the romance of this imagery I determined to find someone in real life who restores accordions and thus it was I found myself at Birmingham’s Accordion Centre, run by Rob Beecroft, talking to the wonderfully generous and welcoming Andrzej Rogowski and Steve Beecroft…

Andrzej, the master accordion restorer, playing one of his favourite accordions
One of my favourite accordion grills. In The Murderer’s Ape, Sally Jones uses a reference book featuring lots of grill designs.
One of Sally Jones’s first jobs when learning how to restore instruments is polishing a lot of accordion buttons, so this set in the Accordion Centre particularly caught my eye
Andrzej showed me how he uses beeswax to “glue” the accordion reads into place
Andrzej at work
Steve at work
Accordion reed blocks
Tuning some accordion reeds

Just some of the beautiful accordions I saw:

Maybe you love a great detective story with surprising but ultimately convincing twists and turns? Perhaps you relish the opportunity to be seduced by the alluring sparkle of the exotic and uncommon events and people and want a really juicy feast of a book? Either way, The Murderer’s Ape is for you.

The Swedish book trailer (very atmospheric even if you can’t understand Swedish!)

The Murderer’s Ape has already won the Nordic Children and Young People’s Literature Prize and the August Prize (from the Swedish Publishers’ Association). When it was published earlier this year in the US, it received glowing reviews, such as this starred review from Kirkus, this starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and this glowing review in the New York Times. I do hope it won’t be long till we see Jakob Wegelius’ first story about Sally Jones, Legenden om Sally Jones, translated into English.

4 Responses

  1. ReadItDaddy

    Fabulous stuff Zoe! This was our Chapter Book of the Week last week and you really took it to the next level, seeking out a real life Fidardo 🙂 Awesome!

    We both loved this, as you said in your review it’s quite old fashioned storytelling but feels instantly fresh and new mainly due to Sally Jones, but also because it takes some quite nifty little chances with the storytelling that you really don’t see enough of in children’s books any more (essentially middle grade murder mysteries are usually quite a bit watered down but this had the lot! Suspense, intrigue, dark plots, gun running – you name it and it’s all in here).

    Will be watching for Jakob’s follow-up for sure.

    • Zoe

      Thanks ReadItDaddy! Yes, isn’t Sally Jones the best? I do hope the pre-quel that is available in Swedish, and even more heavily illustrated, will be published here so we can find out more about Sally Jones.
      Zoe recently posted..The Murderer’s Ape

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