Readable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.
Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).
Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!
Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.
What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a laboured, repetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.
Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.