The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray; Grove Press; 304 pages; $27.00
Identity is often connected to place. If you return to an old home, you are inevitably reminded of the person you were when you were last there. Often, we learn to love or hate a place because we either love or hate who we become while we’re within its borders.
In Sabina Murray’s novel, The Human Zoo, the protagonist, Ting, returns to Manila where she spent her teens and the first few years of her adulthood, and where most of her mother’s family still lives. Despite her normally self-assured personality, Ting struggles to discern her motivations for returning to her family and old friends in the Philippines, just a short time after leaving her husband back in the United States. Despite her uncertainty, she keeps busy by conducting research for her latest book, which examines the historical relationship between Filipinos and Americans by telling the story of a man named Timicheg who was tricked into leaving his home in the Bontoc Igorot tribe to be part of a “human zoo” in America.
Although Ting says the Philippines are “always dangerous,” upon her return, the political chaos and violence caused by the new president, “Copo” Gumboc, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group, Abu Sayyaf, are worse than she has ever seen before. Perhaps Ting went back to the Philippines hoping to ground herself in her family and in the place where she built so much of her identity; if she did, then her plans were certainly interrupted. Ting, who plays the part of protagonist as well as narrator, is sharp-tongued and intelligent; by the end of the story, I found myself not only fascinated by her voice, but by the complexity of what Manila means to her, as well.
The Human Zoo is Sabina Murray’s seventh book and her fifth novel, following Valiant Gentlemen, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2016. Like her protagonist’s parents, Sabina Murray’s mother was Filipina and her father American. Murray spent half of her childhood growing up in Australia and the other half in Manila.
From the very beginning of The Human Zoo, Murray makes it clear she wants to introduce Manila from the inside out. In the first chapter, right after her return to the Philippines, Ting shares a taxi away from the airport with a confused American. Their conversation seems to set the stage for the rest of the story:
“Weird,” the girl said. “What else do I need to know?” Perhaps I needed to tell her about pakikasama, social empathy, and amor proprio, personal dignity, which were the two tenets that Filipinos lived by, but I was discouraged by her large, wet eyes that seemed hopeful for things to be simplified rather than complicated. “The balut, the fertilized duck eggs? They’re not for everyone. Many Filipinos don’t eat them, including me.”
In this scene, the parts of the Philippines that matter most to Ting are hidden from her companion. They are not, however, hidden from the reader; throughout the rest of the novel, Ting’s honesty becomes the norm. She seems to hide nothing, sharing everything from her speculations about how her book will be received by Americans, to her open loathing for Gumboc, to her recognition of the effects her family’s wealth has on her perspective of the Philippines. One of the few things she seems reluctant to face, however, is her own intentions for her return to the Philippines and plans for the future.
As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the people who will characterize Ting’s Manila: her aunts, Tita Rosa and Tita Dom, the only two left of the dynamic trinity they’d been when Ting’s mother was alive; Ting’s close friend Inchoy, who is a philosophy professor and a socialist secretly in love with a trans woman named Bibo; and Chet, Ting’s college boyfriend, who has become a rich businessman since the years they dated, and whose extreme confidence is sometimes charming, sometimes irritating and, once in a while, dangerous. In Manila, it seems that Ting’s identity is tangled between these vibrant characters, as well as others who the reader is introduced to along the way.
At one point, during an argument with Ting, Chet challenges her intentions in the Philippines and boldly claims that he knows her better than anyone else:
“…you’re here with your old titas because they don’t care if you act like a child. They like it”…“I don’t expect you to understand,” I said. “How could you? All you know is Manila. In the United States, I am an award-winning writer. I’m respected. I like my life in the States. I have friends”…“No one there really knows you…I know you and no one else really does.”
At first, it’s hard to accept that no one in America is able to truly see Ting for who she is, however, Ting’s own realizations after a phone conversation with her husband actually seem to support this idea. She says, “My husband’s fault, in the end, had been to mistakenly think he knew me when he didn’t, a delusion that made him unwilling to try for more.” At times, it’s as if Ting’s husband in the States knows a completely different person than the Ting her family is familiar with. He even calls her by her full name, Christina, instead of using Ting like those who know her in the Philippines.
After her return to the Philippines, Ting seems to go back and forth between rediscovering her true identity and sinking back into her child-self, dependent on her aunt and unsure of how to confront her problems. Ting’s constant honesty and questioning is part of what makes The Human Zoo such an interesting read. We are not given all the answers before the end of the story, however; instead, Ting’s journey is cut short when the violence spreading through the country becomes personal. Inside of Murray’s words, we are invited to explore a portrayal of Manila, a place tied so closely to Ting’s identity, in a way that is unpredictable, candid, and, at times, heartbreaking.