It would have been interesting to read ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ without knowing the twist which is revealed on page 77. However, as Karen Joy Fowler’s sixth novel has been one of the more commercially successful and widely discussed Man Booker Prize shortlisted books in recent years, I assume that the majority of potential readers will already know the basic premise of the story. Although I don’t think knowing about the big revelation beforehand lessened my enjoyment of the novel, if you still don’t want to read any further spoilers, then look away now.
Set in Bloomington, Indiana, ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ is narrated by Rosemary Cooke whose psychologist father introduced a chimpanzee called Fern to the family during her early childhood in the 1970s as part of a radical experiment. For the first few years of her life, Rosemary and Fern live as twins more or less from birth while her father observes their behaviour and language use. However, Fern’s disappearance has a huge effect on Rosemary, her parents and her brother Lowell. In later years, she tries to make sense of her unconventional childhood and the vast extent to which it has affected her adult life. As a fifth-year student at University of California, Davis, in 1996, Rosemary is reluctant to talk about her family and has no real friends until she meets Harlow at a time when she is finally forced to confront her past.
Choosing not to confirm Fern’s identity until a quarter of the way through the story may initially seem a bit gimmicky but the non-linear storytelling serves a more serious purpose in highlighting Rosemary’s evasiveness as a young adult and the complex reasons behind it. As Fern left the family when Rosemary was only five years old, her memories are sometimes hazy yet sometimes vivid leading Rosemary to question why she only remembers things selectively and it is not until the end that we learn what happened to Fern.
It is worth noting that Fowler’s father was also a psychology professor who studied animal behaviour (albeit rats in a lab rather than a chimpanzee in the family home). As a result, Fowler draws on some of her own experiences and her overall message about the damage which can be caused by similar experiments, communicated mostly through Lowell’s animal rights crusades, is not particularly subtle. However, she explores the nuances of family dynamics in a more understated manner, raising intriguing questions about parenting and reconciliation.
Overall, ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ is a thought-provoking and highly original story about a dysfunctional family written with real empathy and quirkiness.