Karen Joy Fowler’s seventh novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, is a gripping read which breaks the mould of the traditional family narrative. It is a story like no other about sibling love and rivalry, raising fascinating questions about what makes us human, about animal rights, and the nature-nurture balance.
The novel centres on the Cooke family, in particular the three children, Lowell, Fern and the narrator, Rosemary. Their father, Vince, a psychology professor, is of the school that “didn’t leave their work at the office. They brought it home. They conducted experiments around the breakfast table, made freak shows of their own families, and all to answer questions nice people wouldn’t even think to ask.” When Rosemary is five years old, her sister is inexplicably taken away, never to return. As a consequence, her mother has a breakdown, her father becomes an alcoholic, and her beloved older brother, Lowell, walks out on the family as soon as he can.
The novel starts seventeen years after Fern’s removal, as Rosemary tries to make sense of everything that has happened. She is a student at the University of California, Davis, where her wayward friend, Harlow, questions her unremittingly about her unconventional childhood. Lowell turns up out of the blue with news of Fern, moving the story on significantly towards its bitter-sweet conclusion.
The plot, starting in the middle and shifting back and forth in time, is structured very effectively to make this a real page-turner. There’s an extremely shocking revelation (central to the story and therefore a dreadful spoiler!) about a third of the way through which takes the novel into an altogether wider arena of politics, philosophy and ethics.
Fowler writes from the perspective of Rosemary in an acidic and sometimes vulnerable voice which is sustained very effectively throughout the novel. We form a particular relationship with Rosemary, not least because she makes little asides, addressing us directly and inimically in the telling of her story –“My father made a crude joke. He made the same joke or some variation of it … every other year. If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t. You’d think less of him and thinking less of him is my job, not yours.” And on introducing a character to us for the first time, Rosemary tells us, “Such a sweetheart. But don’t get attached to him; he’s not really part of this story.”
Although this is a very particular story about one family’s unique circumstances, the family dynamics will be all too familiar to many readers. Rosemary’s sardonic voice is authentic and well-sustained – that of the troubled adult who has developed a caustic sense of humour as a defence mechanism. So though the themes of the book are dark and unsettling, Rosemary is often knowingly funny – “One day, a package of junior-sized tampons was left on my bed along with a pamphlet that looked technical and boring, so I didn’t read it. Nothing was ever said to me about the tampons. It was just blind luck I didn’t smoke them.”
I felt the novel loses its way a little towards the end, packing in a bit too much action. A couple of times when Rosemary directly and indirectly quotes other characters at length, these interrupts her otherwise sustained voice. But this is an engaging novel which raises ethical and moral questions in utterly readable ways. Never slipping into sentimentality, it is a story, at once harrowing and charming, expertly told. And the twist is unforgettable…