Book Review

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Photo on 03-12-2014 at 20.11 #4

Fuck it, I’m going to discuss the plot.

MONKEYS. It’s about MONKEYS. Or, to be technical, chimps. Chimpanzees (which aren’t monkeys) that have been raised by humans as part of psychological experiments. And the plural I’m using is incorrect, too, there’s only really one main chimp in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and her name is Fern and she’s the adopted sister of the protagonist and narrator, Rosemary Cooke.

Fowler’s novel (shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize) is a fun, well-put together and very contemporary-American-novel (see below) contemporary American novel that looks at a less-discussed part of a long-popular idea.

There are many documentaries and non-fiction books – as well as huge amounts of trash cinema – that focus on primates and their interactions with humans. On chimps, gorillas*, orangutans, King Kong et cetera. Some of these focus on the people who are “doing” the experiments on the animals – but no one, as Fowler writes in a needless afterword, has written about a child raised with a chimp as her sister. And that is the premise. That is this novel’s premise. It’s a bit of a reveal about 80 pages in and I didn’t see it coming, but I’m writing about it here because I want to.

And because it works. Rosemary lost her sister, Fern, when they were both five, and the novel traces Rosemary’s undergraduate attempts to discover what happened in her childhood and locate her elder brother who ran away from home. That makes it sound plottier than it is. So too would the ultimately truthful: “It’s about a young woman discovering herself and the world during her undergraduate years”. The sneering tone of this is unfair, though, because We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves manages to be a single-generational family saga, an undergraduate-coming-of-age novel AND a novel about animal testing without falling into the any of any of these genre’s obvious pitfalls.

Fowler manages to create a coming-of-age novel where the protagonist has to come to terms with a highly chimp-influenced personality; she’s written a family saga with a family set-up genuinely interesting enough to hang a whole novel off**; she discusses the cruelty and often pointlessness of animal testing whilst acknowledging that some immensely valuable medical discoveries have resulted from it.

The novel is frequently funny, but not as moving as I’d hoped. This is due to its structure, which dives back and forth through memories and stops any particular moment from having real emotional weight due to the fact that there is a lot of foreshadowing and (deliberate, on the part of the narrator) psychological distancing. But that’s unfair, the novel doesn’t set out to make one cry, and I suppose I should be, instead, praising its structure for reflecting the tattered and self-consciously evasive memories of someone with unpleasant thoughts of the past. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves plays with memory, effectively. There are plotty twists, but it is the characterisation of Rosemary that is its biggest strength, really, and it is this that marks the novel as such a success. Fowler has created a knowable and believable voice, strong enough to make the moderately absurd premise (“family torn apart by chimp”) ring true throughout. It also felt well-researched.

Oh, my above “very contemporary-American-novel” comment – it’s about a family, someone’s an academic, everyone’s well-off, nothing really terrible happens but things that are almost terrible do, people have names like “Harlow” and “Lowell”. But I’m being bitchy.

It’s a good novel, it works well. Worth a read.


* The famous example is Koko, who I’m sure I’ve mentioned on here before. Bit of a fan.

** (insert mediocre family-saga novelist her) take note!

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