Monday, 22 June 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler // Review

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Nominated for The Man Booker Prize 2014
Themes: twinness, animal cruelty, experimentation, psychology, guilt, justice, repressed memories, loss, grief, separation, Bildungsroman

~Contain spoilers~

This book surprised me; and not just because of its unconventional topic area. It surprised me how much I grew to like, not necessarily the protagonist herself as such, but the way 'she'/Fowler writes and the clever way in which information was delayed or omitted for impact. The cover of We Are All may disguise it as an ordinary contemporary novel, but in reality, it is in many ways, an atypical story. The blurb also disguises it as a run-of-the-mill story, and only vaguely touches on its much deeper subject matter. What I like about this is that the real story is literally contained inside its pages and cannot be found on the back.

"Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind. Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man. And Fern, Rosemary's beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern's is a fate of the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined."

Fern is established as Rosemary's biological sister, but by the 78th page is revealed to be a chimpanzee. Deeper than that, Rosemary/Fern are both the subjects of their father's psychological experiment into the differences between learning development in 'twinned' chimps and humans, and whether their bond could affect language acquisition. Yet, despite its intelligent links with psychological theories and experiments, I never found it too difficult to read. At college I actually studied the acquisition of language in chimps at some length, which perhaps made that easier for me. However - the plot twist was hard for me to get my head around. After its publication and nomination for the Man Booker, there was a huge buzz surrounding this book, yet somehow that massive detail was kept under wraps... and yet there was me thinking someone had just gone missing!

I'll be honest... I did put the book down at the moment of revelation, to reconsider finishing it. In the end I decided to bear with it even though the subject matter isn't something I'd normally consider about reading about. But, as I read somewhere recently: if you only read what everyone else reads, you can only think what everyone else thinks. So I wasn't immediately a fan, but eventually the writing style and structure of the story won me over. Although Rosemary insists for a large portion of the novel that she is unaware of what happened at the moment of her separation from her 'twin', Fern, it eventually becomes clear that she has repressed memories of the event. This is in keeping with Freudian theories, which suggest that victims of trauma repress memories as a coping mechanism (sometimes in order to avoid taking responsibility). Due to her close bond with Fern, Rosemary also has some chimp-like mannerisms, which make her 'uncanny' (not quite human) to other humans. Inwardly though, she is just as human as anybody else, though she never quite fits in, and she's socially awkward.

Their parents, who Rosemary assumes must be guilty for Fern's expulsion from the family, are later proved to have been rather helpless in terms of Fern's removal. In the end, Rosemary and her mother atone for their mistakes by working closely with or volunteering at the Centre where Fern lives - although the fate of their brother, an animal rights activist, isn't so rosy. Largely though, it was a happy ending which went down well with me. I wasn't expecting a happy ending, which made it more enjoyable when it happened. I like unpredictable stories. The character development was also good and by the end I had no unresolved hatred for anybody. It became quite refreshing to read a book in which the narrator, Rosemary, was evidently not a pretentious or predictable character. At times she seemed more like a guilt-ridden lit fuse that could have veered off in any direction, but I'm glad she found a path that suited her.

Rating: Somewhere between three and four stars, although most of them are given for the way the story was told and not because it has a plot-topic I would ordinarily enjoy. Props to Fowler for creating characters I don't loathe - it's a fairly impressive feat!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the 7th book I've finished reading this year. View my Reading List, or become my friend on Goodreads, for more book-related posts.

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