ZHŪ by J.R. Brienza


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A sick girl grows close to her habitual organ donor—a hybrid who’s part of a lab experiment— in this novel.

Multimillionaire Maxwell Sutherland plans to honor his wife’s dying wish to save their baby. Sadly, their daughter, Abby, has the same “cancer-like illness” that killed her mother. When Abby is 8 years old, she’s on a long list of patients who need transplants. One of her private doctors, Liu, suggests the Chimera Collaborative in China, where a team of scientists grows human organs in pig embryos. Using Abby’s DNA, the group creates the Chimera, which is essentially a pig-human hybrid named Zhū. Some people on the medical staff that tends Abby are evidently disturbed by Zhū’s human characteristics. Sutherland insists that the Chimera is only a “medical device,” its purpose to provide organs for Abby as the aggressive disease spreads through her body. But Abby develops a fondness for Zhū and sees him as a friend, not simply a thing. Zhū learns basic speech, beginning with Abby’s name, and also wins the hearts of a few on the staff, especially Liu and Vicki, a nurse. They soon try to stimulate Zhū mentally with toys, games, and books. As the years pass and Abby needs additional surgeries, Liu and Vicki are more reluctant to harvest Zhū’s organs. This puts both of them at variance with other medical personnel and an increasingly cold Sutherland while Abby is burdened by witnessing her friend’s seemingly endless suffering.

Though Brienza’s (The Belt of Orion II, 2018, etc.) story is smart and often heartfelt, it’s also unquestionably bleak. The author doesn’t initially describe what Zhū looks like. But gradual particulars make him more human, such as his eyes following Vicki in his room or the swaying tree branches outside. This makes certain images, such as Zhū’s perpetual bruises (from restraints), all the more dreadful. Nevertheless, Brienza keeps the story free of violent sequences. For example, readers never see graphic depictions of the surgeries with either Abby or Zhū, and one individual’s savage act committed against the hybrid is only implied. Abby is, of course, sympathetic; because of the unrelenting illness, she undergoes a successful kidney transplant one day only to develop liver cancer shortly thereafter. But while Abby’s perspective leads to tender moments (for example, the girl sneaking into Zhū’s room), the book concentrates more on Sutherland and the medical staff. As Sutherland’s steady loss of compassion is apparent early on, the story may have benefitted from abridging his scenes in favor of more with Abby and Zhū. Regardless, the author’s message is discernible: The medical marvel of organ creation that involves living beings has its downsides. Various staff members represent the real-life conflict that lab-built organs spawn, as some want to help Zhū, others leave, and one doctor shares Sutherland’s heartlessness. Brienza skimps on occasional details, so passages of time aren’t immediately explicit. But medical procedures and the patients’ fluctuating conditions are the pronounced elements propelling the brisk and relatively brief narrative. 

An engrossing, profound, and decidedly grim medical tale.

Pub Date: June 14th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-5456-6426-1
Page count: 158pp
Publisher: Mill City Press, Inc.
Program: Kirkus Indie
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