We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler



On this day, only 3 months ago, we celebrated the launch of Franny & Perks and already we have filled the blog with almost 20 book reviews, 8 bookish event round-ups, a few delicious recipes and even some recommendations on things to see in London (watch this page tomorrow as Franny’s heading to the dizzy heights of Duck & Waffle where she’ll report on her midnight skyscraper experience). So this seems like the right moment to launch our Man Booker 2014 Longlist Challenge. This summer, we will be bringing you our honest reviews of each of the Man Booker titles and will round it off with a special Man Booker longlist summary (for those who may not have found the time yet but want to look well-informed… we’ve been there) and also a shortlist prediction feature! It’s going to be a busy August but challenge accepted.

First up is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves written by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail), apparently the best-selling book out of the longlisted titles thus far – not such a surprise seeing as it is almost £10 cheaper than most of its counterparts – but in my opinion, a fantastic book with which to start this challenge.

The book is centred on a premise inspired by Fowler’s daughter as they walked around the Indiana University campus, where Fowler’s father had worked as a research psychologist: what would it be like to have a parent who thought it was appropriate to raise you along with a chimpanzee? Or, as the back cover asks, what if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? A resulting question, one that Fowler toys with throughout the book and that continues to pull at me even now, is whether the consequences that the protagonist Rosemary endures throughout her life are a result of being the subject of an experiment, or whether it was the knowledge that her father made a conscious decision to use her formative years as an experiment?

Now some people, from reading the paragraph above, would argue that I have given away what Stylist claims to be ‘one of the best twists in years‘, and this is a question that is raised in the ‘Topics for Reading Group Discussions’ at the end of my edition:

Many people will have known that Fern is a chimpanzee before beginning the book. Some people say this makes it more compelling, others wish they hadn’t known. There is a study that suggests that knowing the end – or the middle – of a plot doesn’t actually decrease our enjoyment of it. What do you think, does knowing a plot detail spoil the story or enhance it?

I think this question is entirely dependant on the novel in hand, but in this case, I think it would be incredibly hard to give any depth to my review without ‘revealing’ that Fern is a chimpanzee. With all the hype emerging with the Man Booker Prize, it’s hard to avoid this major plot detail, and there is a clue on the cover, albeit one that isn’t as obvious as I thought now glancing down at my copy. However, even though I was one who knew the ‘unique’ thing about Fern, I was completely drawn into Rosemary’s narrative and was still surprised when, almost 100 pages in (77 to be precise), she chose to reveal the truth about her sister. For me, this was testament to Fowler’s marvellous achievement, allowing me to ‘forget’ something I knew, simply because the story and its structure was so intriguing.

I was absorbed by Fowler’s use of plot structure. From the very start, she casts Rosemary, her narrator, in an unreliable light, and yet in the absence of anyone to corroborate or question her story, we are forced to stumble blindly alongside her, latching on to her ‘memories’ as fact, and trying to understand the meaning of words unsaid, situations unexplained. We’re trusting someone who decides to ‘start in the middle’, an individual who purposefully hides Fern’s identity, and who, on revealing it, addresses us directly:

‘Some of you will have figured that out already. Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern’s essential simian-ness for so long. In my defense, I had my reasons. I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee.’

It is a concept that I studied often at university – the unreliable narrator – and I continue to find it fascinating, but it really struck me in this book that despite Rosemary’s manipulation of her narrative and her conscious decision to repeatedly delay telling us everything about Fern, she is struggling with facing her own memories too. As obvious as it seems now, and certainly in light of ever-increasing attention on living with Alzheimers in current news and literature,  I became acutely aware of how much we depend on our memory, how it defines our day-to-day lives, and how the memories we share with others shape their perception of us – something that Fowler explores through Rosemary’s friendship with Harlow. Her fractured narrative painfully demonstrates the difficulties of coming to terms with her parents’ life-changing decision, and their apparent lack of foresight that their experiment may have severe consequences for their own child as well as Fern. This device confirms my belief that Fowler is a masterful story-teller. I cannot imagine experiencing the same emotions had the plot followed a linear structure, or if it had been made explicit from the outset that Fern was a chimpanzee (even though I knew it before… I hope this is demonstrating how absorbed I was.)

The third factor that makes this a book I strongly admire and worthy of its place on the Man Booker longlist is the surprising ferocity I felt upon finishing it. Not only had Fowler explored a thought-provoking premise through an intriguing plot structure but she had taken a firm stance against animal testing. The horrendous environments in which animals are tested and the torturous experiments to which they are subjected are described frankly. There is no exaggeration, which makes the brutality all the more jarring and distressing, especially in light of Rosemary’s close childhood relationship with Fern. By the close of the novel, I longed to learn more about experiments like Fern and Rosemary, but also to face the truth behind animal testing – something I’ve been vaguely aware of but never fully confronted and the resources offered at the end of the book were really useful. I believe a book that broadens your understanding and demands you to learn more of the world is one that should not be underestimated. Karen Joy Fowler has written an intelligent, honest novel filled with ideas and questions that continue to circle my mind.

Even though I have told you that Fern is a chimpanzee, I think that calling it a spoiler misses the point of the novel. There are so many factors to this book that continue to grip me even as I write this, and they do not centre on Rosemary’s revelation about her sister, but more the effect that growing up with a chimpanzee had on her life, and that now resounds in mine. I hope you go and read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and enjoy it as much as I did. It is a fascinating novel and I long to discuss it further with fellow readers.

– Franny

3 thoughts on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

  1. Nice review. I went into this book completely unspoiled and if anything, not knowing the twist actually decreased my enjoyment. I was fully absorbed in the mystery of where her sister went, only to be left blindsided by the revelation. I had to put the book down and do some research on the experiments that took place in the 70s before I could go back to it and really accept it as a premise for the novel.

    I do plan to read it again at some point. Knowing the full story should make it a more seamless experience, because up until the reveal, I was loving both the language and the character’s voice.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment – I find it really interesting that it decreased your enjoyment. I think I would have felt the same having completed the book and reflected on its meaning whilst writing this review.
      I think if you’ve now done some research and established it as a premise then you should definitely pick it up again. It is a fantastic book and, like you said, the narrator’s voice is completely absorbing. It’s a pleasure to be able to discuss this point with you!

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