Book review

The Human Zoo,” the fascinating new novel by PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Sabina Murray (“The Caprices,” “Forgery,” “Valiant Gentlemen”), is a tale of indecisiveness. Or maybe it’s a political thriller. Or it could be a love story.

It’s definitely a social critique targeting the grotesque inequalities of an authoritarian regime in the contemporary Philippines. It also takes a look at past colonial-era outrages: the human zoos of the title, in which Indigenous tribespeople of the Philippines were put on display for the delectation of American and European audiences at world’s fairs in the early 20th century.

Until her final chapter, Murray cannily keeps you guessing where her narrative is going and what kind of story it is. Meanwhile, in just over 250 pages, she delivers a remarkably wide-ranging portrait of a society under such pressure that feels as if it could blow up at any minute.

The connecting thread between all the possibilities of what the book might be is its narrator, Christina Klein. The daughter of an American father and Filipina mother, Christina — or “Ting” as her Filipino family and friends call her — is a prizewinning author and journalist who’s on the run from New York, where both her marriage and her career are in a state of limbo. Restless as she hits her late 40s, Ting doesn’t want to be pinned down to any kind of choice or commitment. “I wasn’t sure of anything,” she says, “other than the fact that I’d wanted to get out of New York.”

Arriving in Manila on a visit of unspecified length, she toys with the idea of writing a book about those human zoos of a century ago. She also reconnects with her elderly aunts and various old friends.

One friend is a former college buddy, a gay socialist university teacher who lives with his mother while keeping a lover in an apartment in one of Manila’s dodgier neighborhoods. Another is her ex-boyfriend Chet, a successful entrepreneur who’s staunchly married but would like nothing better than to set Ting up as his mistress in a luxury apartment where she could write to her heart’s content.

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Rich and manipulative, Chet is dismissive of Ting’s American life and American accomplishments. He’s certain she belongs in Manila, and although she finds him “maddening,” she sometimes wonders if he has a point.

In the meantime, Ting ignores her American husband’s pleas for reconciliation and his rejection of their proposed divorce terms — not because they’re unfair to him, but because they’re so unfavorable to her. “[A] part of me felt all the legal stuff was overkill,” she explains, “somehow irrelevant.”

Clearly we’re in the company of a narrator whose feelings and conduct are as unpredictable to herself as they are to the reader. Wry, adrift and unable to construct any viable strategy for what she’s trying to accomplish, she languidly caves to other people’s wishes.

Her Aunt Rosa is insistent on one particular wish — that Ting should be friendly to a Filipino American, Laird, who’s about to marry into the family. Murray builds a sense of intrigue around Laird as he repeatedly pops up in odd corners of Ting’s social circles, “saying little and always watching.”

Ting can’t quite take Laird seriously. (“Right now,” she quips to a friend, “he’s trying to figure out the Philippines, possibly with the aim of solving all our problems.”) Still, he baffles her. Supposedly he’s in Manila to meet his fiancee’s family. But that doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

Murray’s present-day Philippines, it should be noted, differs slightly from the country of the headlines. Rather than give real-life Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte a place in her tale, Murray has created a fictional President Procopio Gumboc — perhaps to avoid trouble for the book with the repressive Duterte regime. Certainly, Gumboc rules with a Duterte-like hand, giving his police “carte blanche to execute anyone suspected of dealing or using drugs” and instigating a policy of “extrajudicial killings” so prevalent that it merits an acronym: “EJKs.”

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Some names may have been altered, but Murray’s sense of place is vigorously vivid. From her aunt’s balcony in Manila, for instance, Ting observes an “endless stream of shouting vendors that sold fresh tofu, ice cream, balut, and pan de sal. The rag dealers had their own call, as did those looking for old bottles and newspapers. It all seemed part of one big song, occasionally joined by a crowing rooster or a backfiring tricycle or the grind and clang of my aunt’s gate being opened and shut.”

While the reader is steeped in these atmospherics, hard facts keep pressing in closer to Ting until the novel is taut with suspense. By the final stretch, Ting finds herself “beginning to make sense out of the chaos.” To reveal anything more would spoil the story. Let me just say that instabilities — of tone, of content, of sympathies, of perspective — can be cardinal assets in provocative fiction.

In “The Human Zoo,” Murray wields those instabilities with a keen, riveting instinct.

Sabina Murray, Grove Press, 259 pp., $27

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