The story is told through the eyes of a silverback gorilla named Ivan who lives in a run-down “domain” as part of an exhibit at The Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade with a handful of other neglected animals. Ivan tries to dwell on the positive element of his life, taking an especial interest in artwork. His “drawings” are sold to tourists but don’t raise enough money for the manager to give the animals proper living conditions. As the story progresses, Ivan makes a promise to a dying elephant to save the attraction’s newest resident from spending a miserable life there, and it’s up to Ivan to figure out how to use his artwork to this end.
The book is targeted toward ages 8 – 12. The language is highly-accessible—I read it within a day. (Ivan notes that gorillas, unlike humans, are efficient in their communications). Because of the nature of the first-person point of view, the true plot of the story doesn’t emerge until about halfway through, though there is plenty of foreshadowing as elements of the main conflict merge through Ivan’s musings and recollections in sometimes startling and frightening ways. His musings are sometimes humorous. For example, he notes, “I draw the things in my cage, simple items that fill my days: an apple core, a banana peel, a candy wrapper. (I often eat my subjects before I draw them.)” Sometimes, his musings are jarring, such as his recollection of the violent murder of his parents. Sometimes, his musings are inspiring. As an aspiring artist bound by a gorilla’s mind, he has trouble creating artwork that is abstract—he cannot envision what is not directly in front of him.
The author was inspired to write the tale after reading about a gorilla named Ivan, who lived for 27 years in a tiny cage in a local shopping mall. After public outcry, the real Ivan was moved to an actual zoo, where he became somewhat of a celebrity.
At times, Ivan’s voice is chilling. Just as Ivan is physically trapped in a cage, there is a deeper part of Ivan trapped within the mind of a gorilla—something human, an artist that wants to envision potential beyond reality—but struggle within the limits of a simian brain.
As with any narrative, the first-person point of view presents both benefits and liabilities. Because of the gorilla’s limited perspective, there are no extensive descriptive passages; but his point of view is also what gives the book its charm. For writers, it’s a quick read, and I would recommend it as a study in point of view. For kids, I would recommend it for animal lovers, artists, dreamers, and anyone who believes in the possibility of pushing oneself to help build a better world.