The story of Cliff Emerson, a man with cerebral palsy and a big heart but no voice, and his friendship with Ayo, a new caregiver who listens differently—and takes big risks to help him feel more human.
Cliff’s unheard narrative, told from his perspective, traces the history of his care, from his time in the state hospital to his move into the group home where he has lived for twenty years. Though it was designed to help him grow his independence, his group home program often fails him. His staff are lazy and complacent and their superiors aloof and unobservant. It seems like Cliff’s the only one who sees this—until the day that Ayo starts.
Ayo is new not only to Cliff’s home but to America. Where he came from and why he left are mysteries. He doesn’t like to talk about it much. But his optimism, like his smile, is infectious, and Cliff soon learns to trust him. For Cliff, it is a revelation, being understood by someone without having said a word. All that was required was willingness and patience, things staff haven’t given him in a long time. As Cliff begins to see himself through Ayo’s caring gaze, he starts believing that he deserves and is able to live a life as full as anyone’s. The challenge is convincing those in power of this truth.
Reminiscent of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this novel is unflinching in its portrayal of disability care and also, more broadly, of life in America. It is touching and darkly comic, at times bordering on the absurd. But at its core, it is the story of a man in search of something meaningful in a time and place opposed to his whole being, and yet who, with Ayo’s help, manages to maintain his sense of dignity and personhood—and, for the first time, to taste real freedom.
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