If your family was invited to adopt a chimpanzee, and treat him as a child or sibling, would you do it? In Kaitlyn Greenidge’s startling debut novel, the Freeman family do just that: they move into a Chimpanzee research institute on the “white side of town” and adopt Charlie, teaching him sign language in an effort to communicate with animals.
“This car doesn’t feel like ours,” I said.
“Well, it is now,” my father replied. “So get used to it.”
Outside of the car it was dark and hot and early morning August in Dorchester. Though the crack of the window, I could smell every part of the city – every slab of asphalt, every rotten plank of wood siding, every crumbling stucco wall, every scarred and skinny tree – I could smell all of it beginning to sweat.
I read an excerpt of this novel in the Algonquin catalogue and was intrigued by the premise. It did not disappoint: an African American family during the civil rights movement, working with chimpanzees. I was eager to see the family dynamic with the chimp. To be honest, I expected something a bit Doctor Doolittle-y, but with a dose of social awareness on top of it. This novel is nothing like that. Instead, it focuses on the elder daughter’s perspective, as she watches her family rise and fall as a result of their involvement in the experiment. It also switches back and forth with Nymphadora, a woman in 1929 who is also involved in experiments at the Chimpanzee research institute. The juxtaposition of the stories raises some difficult questions.
What I envy is not their skin but their insouciance. I envy the freedom to sin with only a little bit of consequence, to commit one selfish act and not have it mean the downfall of my entire people. Where indecency and mischief do not mean annihilation. I envy that their capacity for love is already assumed, not set aside or presumed missing, like it is for us Negro women.
Greenidge’s writing style is subtle and authentic, and the words disappear as you are immersed in the story – a sign of good writing. She is able to convey a strong political message without being didactic: the complexity of the situation slowly reveals itself and the reader is left to make her own mind up about the ethics or morality of it. I liked that it made me think, and it also made me question my own preconceptions and prejudices.
One of the most important things Mumma drilled into me was never to let a white person think that they knew you. In Spring City, Mumma and Pop and all the other Stars and Saturnites were planets, possessing deep and mysterious seas, complicated deserts, forests of knowledge and pain. but step across the border into Courtland County and they were little more than rocks, pebbles really, to the white people that lived there. Small and insignificant, without the weight or density to command even the smallest orbit. Mumma told me that this underestimation was an advantage. It meant you could do things white people would never even know about. Your invisibility was your power.
While I gained insight into Nymphadora and Charlotte’s minds, I was less able to connect with the background characters – Charlotte’s father, mother and sister. It meant that I was less emotionally affected by what happened to them. Consequently, the dramatic climax of the novel was less dramatic, to me, and seemed to be cast behind a hazy smoke; it was rushed and could have been a little better.
This was the one thing about Charlie that had fascinated him: did chimpanzees, like humans, contain a multitude of selves? When he’d raised the question with Laurel, playfully, one night early on in the experiment, as they lay before sleep, she’d gotten indignant. “Of course they do,” she’d sputtered. But the way she’d said it, it was obvious she hadn’t thought of it before, was only defending this answer because she loved Charlie and couldn’t bear to think of him as different from herself.
The strength of the novel is in the complexity of the ideas. Our connection to others, of different races and different species, based on love, as it clashes with the prejudices that led people to mistakenly place each other in categories of consciousness or awareness, without ever trying to communicate or understand each other. It is, primarily, a novel about communication and what happens when communication breaks down because of false assumptions.
That was, perhaps, the source of their cleaving in a nutshell. Laurel could not conceive of anyone that she loved as not being of the same mind as her. That is what she’d said when he’d raged at her about it all… “I never asked because I thought you would agree, Charles. I thought we were of the same mind.” Himself, he knew he could love those of a different mind, but even he had his limits.
This was an excellent debut novel, and I would put it on recommended reading lists for high school students, college students, or book clubs – there are plenty of interesting aspects for discussion and it is absolutely a novel that needs to be part of our conversation.