Colin McAdam speaks about the role of chimpanzees in his novel ‘A Beautiful Truth’

During the latest instalment of the Canadian Writers in Person series on Feb. 9, author Colin McAdam visited York University to read from latest novel, A Beautiful Truth. York teaching assistant Dana Patrascu-Kingsley sent the following report to YFile.

Colin McAdam
Colin McAdam

The award-winning writer Colin McAdam visited York University on Feb. 9 to read from and talk about his latest novel, A Beautiful Truth (2013). 

A Beautiful Truth follows the life of Looee, a young chimpanzee who is adopted and raised by a couple living on a farm in Vermont. After many years of living and communicating with humans, Looee is taken to a research facility in Florida, where he is first subjected to medical research and then joins a group of chimpanzees living in captivity. The novel depicts ape behaviours and modes of communication from the perspective of the humans and of the chimps themselves. The book helps us imagine the chimpanzees’ world, and see its similarities to and differences from ours.

McAdam spoke about becoming fascinated with chimps when, after watching documentaries about them, he realized how alike humans and chimps are. One of the biggest differences between humans and chimps, with whom we share more than 98 per cent of our genetic material, is our appearance, said McAdam. Books dispense with appearance though, and he builds empathy by inviting the readers to immerse themselves fully into their world. This is why he said that he wanted to write A Beautiful Truth from the perspective of the chimps. “This project stripped away language and emphasized body language as the main aspect of communication,” said McAdam, noting that this makes us more aware of how similar our modes of communication are.

Cover of McAdam's book A Beautiful TruthMcAdam said that it was very important that the behaviour and mode of communication of the chimps backed by documented fact. To research this novel, he read about the ape language studies, about sign language and symbolic languages taught to chimps. He also researched some of the medical research projects that involved chimps, and met survivors of these projects at the Fauna Foundation (a chimp sanctuary near Montreal). Meeting the chimpanzees in person allowed him to learn how they smell and act, what they sound like, what they look like, and how they interact with humans.

Politics, friendships, jealousy, territoriality are things contained in novels and McAdam saw all of these themes were present in the chimpanzees’ world, without the words. He said he wants to help us see ourselves as a species of apes. “This is a book about us finding some humility,” he said.

As the review in The Guardian says: “Brilliantly riffing on the apeness of humans and vice versa, the beautiful truth of McAdam’s novel is complex, subtle and intensely moving.”

McAdam’s first novel, Some Great Thing (2004), won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for English language fiction. His second novel, Fall (2009) won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A Beautiful Truth won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for English language fiction. 

On March 1, Sue Goyette will be coming to York to read from and talk about her collection of poems Ocean. Readings are free and open to any member of the public. For more information, contact Professor Leslie Sanders at or Professor Gail Vanstone at All readings are held Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm in 206 Accolade West Building, Keele campus.