Author: Sabina Murray
Publisher: Grove Press
First Published: August 10, 2021
Genres: Literary Fiction
Filipino-American Christina “Ting” Klein has just travelled from New York to Manila, both to escape her imminent divorce, and to begin research for a biography of Timicheg, an indigenous Filipino brought to America at the start of 20th century to be exhibited as part of a ‘human zoo.’ It has been a year since Ting’s last visit, and one year since Procopio “Copo” Gumboc swept the elections in an upset and took power as president. Arriving unannounced at her aging Aunt’s aristocratic home, Ting quickly falls into upper class Manila life―family gatherings at her cousin’s compound; spending time with her best friend Inchoy, a gay socialist professor of philosophy; and a flirtation with her ex-boyfriend Chet, a wealthy businessman with questionable ties to the regime. All the while, family duty dictates that Ting be responsible for Laird, a cousin’s fiancé, who has come from the States to rediscover his roots.
As days pass, Ting witnesses modern Filipino society languishing under Gumboc’s terrifying reign. To make her way, she must balance the aristocratic traditions of her extended family, seemingly at odds with both situation and circumstance, as well temper her stance towards a regime her loved ones are struggling to survive. Yet Ting cannot extricate herself from the increasingly repressive regime, and soon finds herself personally confronted by the horrifying realities of Gumboc’s power.
At once a propulsive look at contemporary Filipino politics and the history that impacted the country, The Human Zoo is a thrilling and provocative story from one of our most celebrated and important writers of literary fiction.
The Human Zoo is a surprising novel, one that I feel is needed to shine a spotlight on the current state of the Philippines’ broken political system. The main character, Ting, is researching and writing about Timicheg and the Igorot people who were brought to the United States as part of a human zoo. The Philippines’ long and horrendous history of colonization provides context for Ting’s story in present-day New Manila. I loved this book because it was both charming and uncomfortably real, many of the characters felt like I was reading about my actual friends and family.
If you spend enough time in this country, you come to believe that the problems are largely unsolvable.
I had wondered about the choice of the narrator with Ting, but by the end, I realized that it couldn’t be anyone else. Ting is a likable yet frustrating character, she passionately condemns the horrible injustices taking place because of the current war on drugs, yet is apathetic toward the politics that run the country. She comes from a family of privileged elite, where she can comfortably float from one family event to the next, not caring about responsibilities after the implosion of her marriage. Her place of privilege is what allows her to be apathetic and even judgmental toward the people around her, including Filipino Americans despite being one herself. She is the perfect representation of the rich socialite families that hold immense power yet do nothing beyond living a life of luxury, ignoring the glaring issues that continue to plague the Philippines.
The Human Zoo is a powerful condemnation of the corruption found in the upper levels of Philippine society, directly confronting the inaction of the privileged elite and the ever-increasing disparity of wealth. It is a timely novel that dares to ask complex questions about Duterte’s current tenure as president beyond his notorious drug war.
Trigger Warning: Violence, Death, Homophobia