I received We Love You, Charlie Freeman in exchange for an honest review.
“Callie would like to believe that she is the only one who still lives at the Tonybee in her heart, who goes through the experiment every day in her mind, but she is not.”
We Love You, Charlie Freeman had such an intriguing premise. Spanning family, race, language and animal rights, it sounded so unique that I had to press request. It tells the story of the Freemans, an African-American family who are invited to take part in an experiment at the Tonybee Institute. The Freemans uproot their lives to go and live with Charlie, a chimpanzee, welcoming him as one of their own and attempting to communicate with him using sign language.
I love a good monkey book. I find their intelligence and empathy absolutely fascinating. I read a book which had a vaguely similar premise a few years ago [Please note that this story does not openly promote that it’s about a monkey, so this is a spoiler. But if you don’t know that it’s about monkeys by now – where have you been?!] which really stuck with me, and I was hoping I may have a similar experience with this debut novel. Unfortunately, that wasn’t really the case. For the majority of the book, I felt Charlie was somewhat sidelined; the human characters, their race and their relationships took complete precedence and I really didn’t learn much at all about whether a chimpanzee could really learn sign language in order to communicate.
What the blurb doesn’t tell you is that it’s not all about the Freemans. After being introduced to the family and their new surroundings in the first few chapters we are whisked away to another narrator, Nymphadora, who encountered the Institute years before when they were undertaking some unethical practices. I usually have no problem with dual storylines or timelines – I enjoy them – but this book wasn’t sold as that and the change in time and narrator felt a little jarring here as I was just getting used to the narrative.
This same issue carries throughout the book – the author tackles multiple topics and offers chapters from various viewpoints in order to tell her tale and, while I loved the story she was trying to tell, I sometimes felt there wasn’t enough of any one character, timeline or topic for me to truly connect with them. This does pick up in the second half though, and once I’d got past the 50% mark I started to truly feel engrossed with the story. It’s just a shame it took quite that long.
There’s lot that’s good in this book and I think it may have been just a case of wrong place, wrong time for me. It wasn’t quite what I expected but there’s still no doubt that it’s an excellent debut – one that strikes that balance between intelligence and accessibility, examining topical issues in a way which is compelling to the reader. Greenidge creates some wonderfully sympathetic characters and through them she tells an important story, I just wish I’d got a little bit more of them all – especially Charlie. It was only in the second half that I felt truly compelled with the story and the ending left me with more questions than answers. It’s not exactly open-ended – the Freeman’s story is tied up well in the epilogue – but on an emotional and psychological level I felt that there were a lot of stones left unturned. I think that’s the aim, but for me it left me with confused, mixed feelings.
Having written what may be quite a negative review, I still believe that people should read this. You will get something out of it – some education, a change of perspective. It is unique. And I think it’s one that, despite my qualms, I think I’ll reflect on for a while to come.