This shattering novel is filled with storytelling sleight of hand. What appears to be a story of mothers and daughters, of sisterhood put to the test, of adolescent love and grown-up misconduct, and of history’s long reach, becomes a provocative and compelling exploration of America’s failure to find a language to talk about race.
Greenidge's ambitious debut novel is the multiperspective story of the Toneybee Institute, a converted music school in western Massachusetts ostensibly specializing in fostering communication between chimpanzees and humans. The Freemans Laurel, Charles, and their two daughters, Charlotte and Callie are a family recruited to the institute from the Boston area in 1990 on account of their skill at sign language, the methodology chosen for a new experiment. Although no members of the family are deaf, Laurel learned sign language at a young age as a result of her distrust of spoken language, growing up in Maine as the only black girl in a hundred-mile radius, and she has passed along this method of communication to her daughters. At the Toneybee Institute, the Freemans welcome a chimpanzee named Charlie into their family and begin an effort to earn his trust and, eventually, teach him to speak. Narrated mostly by Charlotte, a high school freshman, the story moves back and forth in time as we learn the secrets of the institute's disturbing and shocking past. The narrative structure is somewhat schematic, the pieces fitting together almost too perfectly as information is withheld to provide tension. However, the themes of communication across differences is nonetheless deftly constructed, encompassing weighty issues such as race, language, sexuality, and the intersections of religion and science, arriving finally at a heartbreaking confrontation. The end result is a sobering look at how we communicate with one another and what inevitably gets lost in translation.