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Thursday, November 6, 2014

‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

From the BLURB:

Rosemary’s young, just at college, and she’s decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we’re not going to tell you too much either: you’ll have to find out for yourselves what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.

Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There’s something unique about Rosemary’s sister, Fern. So now she’s telling her story; a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice. It’s funny, clever, intimate, honest, analytical and swirling with ideas that will come back to bite you.

2014 has been a very good year for me discovering favourite books … albeit, a few years after initial publication. ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt, 'The Borrower' by Rebecca Makkai, ‘Us’ by David Nicholls (actually, this one was a rarity because I read it as soon as it hit shelves!) and now ‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler.

Karen Joy Fowler’s eighth novel was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. But (and I mean this in the kindest possible way to all those literati snobs) – don’t let all those accolades put you off.

When I first started hearing about ‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ and noticing the gorgeous sunshiny cover popping up everywhere, I was a bit hesitant – the blurb didn’t give much of the story away, and I don’t actually put much stock in literary fiction awards … until David Nicholls’ ‘Us’ was longlisted for the Man Booker (surprising everyone). I told myself to stop being so snobby about literary snobbery, and then I read a big WINK-WINK review that let slip what ‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ is actually about, and I was intrigued. For that reason, I’m going to write my own review being very upfront about the sort-of-big reveal in the book (even though hints are dropped throughout, the reveal comes a little before midway and I’ve even noticed a few international book covers that have made the “secret” blatantly obvious in the cover artwork).

So – here goes – if you don’t want to know the kinda-secret storyline of ‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ then please stop reading. Just know that I loved the book, highly recommend it and count it as one of my all-time favourites. 
But stop reading as of … NOW!

For those of you still willing to read on – ‘We are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ is the story of 22-year-old Rosemary Cooke, whom we meet in 1996 when she’s a college student. Her brother ran away from home when she was younger, her father drinks like a fish and her mother is always seemingly on the edge of another nervous breakdown … and all of this stems from her missing sister, Fern, who was in fact a chimpanzee.

Yes, much like Nim Chimpsky, The Kelloggs and Gua – the Cooke family, with their psychology professor father, enter into a not entirely uncommon behavioural/language experiment of the 1970s – raising a chimpanzee as human. Fern arrives in the Cooke household at three months of age, and only one month after Rosemary is born. The two girls are raised together, along with older brother Lowell. But when Rose is five-years-old something happens, and Fern is taken away to live on a farm – an event the repercussions of which are still being felt in 1996 and beyond, as Rosemary recounts her childhood memories and triggering events of 96’ that force her to re-examine her upbringing and emotional scars left by Fern’s disappearance and, later, Lowell’s running away from home to live the life of an activist.

My parents persisted in pretending we were a close-knit family, a family who enjoyed a good heart-to-heart, a family who turned to each other in times of trial. In light of my two missing siblings, this was an astonishing triumph of wishful thinking; I could almost admire it. At the same time, I am very clear in my own mind. We were never that family.

This book absolutely broke my heart. At one point, Rose comments that Fern was her fun-house mirror twin:

She was my twin, my fun-house mirror, my whirlwind other half. It’s important to note that I was also all those things to her. I would say that, like Lowell, I loved her as a sister, but she was the only sister I ever had, so I can’t be sure; it’s an experiment with no control. Still, when I first read ‘Little Women’, it seemed to me I’d loved Fern as much as Jo loved Amy if not as much as Jo loved Beth.

That struck me (as did the ‘Little Women’ understanding of sisterly bonds) and I kept thinking that the experiment – indeed, all animal experiments – can be held up as a fun-house mirror to our own humanity. At one point, Lowell comments to Rose that such cruel experiments say more about the scientist than the science – and that is also true, and perhaps a theme of the book. What do these animals tell us about ourselves, and what does the suffering we inflict upon them say about us?

The story has a somewhat wonky timeline that makes perfect sense once you understand how many memories and emotions Rose has been suppressing, and cannot tap into at a whim. She admits to starting her story in the middle – 1996, aged 22 – and she is narrating from somewhere in the future, while going back into her childlike mind to remember the years growing up with Fern, and immediately after losing her. The plot feels more like it’s mapped by emotion that any sort of narrative pattern, and that too makes perfect sense – particularly when I started wondering if the Cooke family experienced an experiment-within-an-experiment, that some Big Brother entity was observing them after loss, in the absence of the one they loved.

Because it’s set in 1996, the point from which Rose decides to start her tale – we do get a bit of information about her college life that feels irrelevant, but is of course offering us a glimpse into her neutral self – when she’s still numb to the loss of Fern, unquestioning of the events surrounding her disappearance and choosing not to pry too hard. The arrival of a drama student called Harlow throws Rose for a loop – and brings out the “monkey girl” in her, that she’s been suppressing since she lost her sister.

While reading this book I kept thinking “how has nobody thought to write about this before?!” Because it is a story-trigger ripe with possibilities and heartbreak, human examination and disgrace. But, of course, Karen Joy Fowler makes it very clear in the book where she drew on her wealth of inspiration – name-checking the many chimpanzee experiments of the last few decades and interweaving the fictional story of the Cooke family experiment with real events quit seamlessly, until by the end of the book fact and fiction run together.

There were whole sentences, paragraphs and ideas that I just wanted to eat up because they were so delicious. Like Rose reflecting on the first time she saw ‘Star Wars’, and was disappointed that her brother, when he’d originally recounted the story to her and Fern, had skewed one minor plot detail:

Unfairness bothers children greatly. When I did finally get to see Star Wars, the whole movie was ruined for me by the fact that Luke and Han got a medal at the end and Chewbacca didn’t.

I adored this book, and as I said – I’ll now count it as an all-time favourite. I experienced savage emotions of sadness, disgust and joy while reading – and by the last page my whole body felt tender as a bruise, such was the emotional impact of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel.


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