Bonobo Handshake

Published By: Gotham

Book Category: Non-Fiction, Nature

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Reviewed by Sara Porter

Many readers before reading this book may know what a bonobo is, but after reading Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods, they will never forget the cousins to the chimpanzee. Woods’ story of her time on a bonobo preserve is part love story, part history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, part coming of age story, and part tale of affection between the bonobos and their human caretakers.

Woods accompanies her then-boyfriend, Brian Hare, to Lola Ya Bonobo, so he could research the animals. Woods, a naïve young woman at the start of her journey does not know anything about the animals or the country that she vaguely hears war and bloodshed about. By the end of the book, the creatures change her into a more aware person of her relationships, her world, and herself.

Woods’ memoirs capture beautifully the human and animal characters of the story. Besides Woods herself, the other human caretakers of Lola Ya Bonobo are brilliantly recalled. There is Claudine Andre, whom Vanessa describes as beautiful enough to be a model, but holds the preserve together with fire and determination. There are also the “Mamas” a group of older women who care for the baby bonobos as well as the other human workers with wry humor and loving wisdom.  Then there is Hare, the man whom Woods accompanies and later marries. At first their relationship is a study in contrasts (She’s emotional, he’s rational), but it develops into one of exasperation and affection combined to form a deep love.

Woods also portrays the bonobos with depth making them sometimes just as realized as their human companions. Many of the scenes with the bonobos are wonderfully written such as the story of Malou, one bonobo’s possessiveness over Hare to the point where she almost sees Woods as a rival and constantly scratches and marks her territory at her. There is also heart breaking moments of the humans caring for infant and elderly bonobos and grieving for their loss like family friends. It’s a wonderful book with wonderful creatures, both human and animal.

Proceeds of Bonobo Handshake will  go to the Lola Ya Bonobo preserve.

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