Book Review: Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods

For me a great memoir does more than tells a personal story. It also engages both my emotions and my intellect and leaves me wanting to know more about the author and what she writes about. Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods, delivers on all counts.

The book opens with Woods in crisis as she is about to board a plane with her fiancé from Paris to Kinshasa, Congo, where she will stay at a sanctuary for orphan bonobos. While most of us have heard of chimpanzees and know about their plight, far fewer people are aware of bonobos, even though they are more endangered than chimps. Like chimps, bonobos carry a good portion of the same DNA we do. Unlike chimps, bonobos are peace loving, female-dominated, and very sexual.

Most of us also know that Congo is a dangerous place where women are raped, children are conscripted to fight, and millions of people have died at the hands of various rebels and government groups in the last decade. It is part of deepest, darkest Africa, with plenty of disease and other natural threats to add to the human ones. Few outsiders find compelling reasons to linger for any amount of time. Even fewer spend time to truly understand the nature of the various factions and conflicts.

Yet Woods and her fiancé, then husband, go back again and again over several years to work with the bonobos, hoping to gain scientific knowledge of how these apes are wired, and possibly learn how humans can benefit knowing more about them.

Bonobo Handshake is a story of love, politics and science woven around the details of Woods’ personal story, the story of apes, tales of Congo and other African countries, and accounts of scientific research. The narrative flows effortlessly from one topic to another. Woods is not afraid to show her weaknesses, and if anything she downplays her own courage while highlighting the everyday bravery of those who live and work full time in the Congo on behalf of bonobos.

I was fascinated from the first page to the last, and I was glad to see resources for more information included at the end of the book. Mother-daughter book club members may want to consider the active sex lives of the bonobos before choosing this as a group read, but there is much that girls aged 16 and up and adults can learn from Bonobo Handshake. I highly recommend it.

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