We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

>> Thursday, September 18, 2014

TITLE: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
AUTHOR: Karen Joy Fowler

PAGES: 321
PUBLISHER: Serpent's Tail

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

Rosemary's young, just at college, and she's decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.

Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began all of Rosemary's trouble. So now she's telling her story: full of hilarious asides and brilliantly spiky lines, it's a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

Right, so I should probably get a move on posting the reviews for my Man Booker project reading before the winner is announced! I read this one before the shortlist came out, purely because it sounded great (trying to guess what would be on the shortlist hasn't been the most successful strategy in previous years), and it's actually made it through. It's probably the one title there that would have been commercially very successful regardless of its inclusion, too.

We meet Rosemary Cook at the point she herself tells us is the middle of her story. It's 1996, and Rosemary is in university, a quiet young woman determined not to share any details about her family history. We know she once had a brother and a sister, Lowell and Fern, but that Lowell has run away, while Fern is not in the picture any longer. We also know that there's something about their family that Rosemary knows will change other people's perception of her, but for a while, we're not quite sure what it is.

And then Fowler takes as back and forth in time to find out just what made Rosemary's family unique and what happened to destroy it. But there is not just a truth; we have to contend with memory and how that can distort things. And through almost-random vignettes of Rosemary's childhood, we slowly discover the secrets about what happened to Fern.

Fowler has some really interesting things to say about big things like how families work, the nature of sisterhood, the treachery of memory, animal rights, and activism. But she's also a fantastic storyteller, and she creates characters that feel real and that I cared about. In fact, I actually cried. There's a particular point when Rosemary is at a lecture and the lecturer talks about a certain research, which turns out to raise some possibilities about something that Fern might have experienced. Rosemary is devastated, can't stop thinking about it, and I completely understood. It's the idea of someone suddenly being moved from a situation where she's important and valued into one where she's not, and not only can the most horrible, violent things happen to her, no one will particularly give a shit. Oh, even thinking about it makes my stomach clench. And yes, I know that it should be just as upsetting for anyone to be put in such a situation, but for some reason, when it's someone who's known a better life, it seems to hit me much worse. Sorry, this will sound cryptic to anyone who hasn't read the book yet, so the tl;dr version: there is a lot of emotion here, and it's honestly earned.

I also loved the way this story was told. There is a lot of experimentation and playing with structure in this year's Man Booker books, and Fowler uses to excellent effect. The moving around between timelines and the way Rosemary directly addresses the reader and openly discusses her choices in how she's telling us her story, it all goes to developing some of her themes, especially that of memory. I should mention, too, it doesn't make the book hard to read. In fact, it's very readable. I couldn't put it down.

It's also a satisfying book, really satisfying, mainly because of the ending. It wasn't a fairy tale ending, but one that really comforted me and made me close the book with a happy sigh. Highly recommended. If you do decide to read it, though, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, read other reviews. The chances of seeing spoilers are very high, and you really don't want that to happen (if it does happen, though, never mind. I was spoilt, and I still loved it. I just think I would have loved it even better if I hadn't been).



Nicole 11 October 2014 at 15:04  

Your review really intrigued me and although this isn't something I'd normally pick up, I started it last night. Initially I thought it's another pretentious lit book that I hated when I was an English major, but it has really sucked me in. I keep wanting to put it down, but then keep reading.

So thanks for broadening my reading.

Rosario 11 October 2014 at 17:22  

Thanks for coming back and telling me, Nicole! I'm glad you're getting into it. Have you got to the big reveal yet?

Jorrie Spencer,  16 October 2014 at 22:44  

I read and loved this. Cried as well. Fowler did a fantastic job. I think your comment about the emotions being earned was spot-on.

Rosario 19 October 2014 at 08:47  

She definitely did. I so wish this had won!

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