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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

March 7, 2015

WeAreAll_UKEdition-186x300Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, 2013

Warning: This review discusses a major plot development that is not revealed until partway through the book.

Rosemary, the narrator of this novel, suffered a terrible loss when she was five years old. Now, at 22, she has learnt to cope with daily life by not talking about that loss. Then Harlow, a bringer of chaos, crashes into her life and knocks her back to the time of the trauma.

Until she is five, Rosemary never knows a moment alone. She and her sister Fern play together all day and sleep together at night. Then Fern disappears from her life, and Rosemary falls into a state of “prolonged, silent only-ness.” The family implodes with grief – her mother collapses into depression, her father resorts to alcohol, her brother withdraws and eventually he, too, disappears. Rosemary, previously a constant talker, becomes silent.

A quarter of the way through the book, the narrator reveals that Fern is a chimpanzee the same age as Rosemary. The two are part of an experiment by their psychologist father, with the aim of comparing their developing linguistic and other abilities. Rosemary delays telling the reader this because she wants us to understand that Fern is a sister and a daughter, not a pet. This strategy worked for me – I felt that reality strongly – even though I knew Fern was a chimpanzee before starting the book. It has been revealed in many reviews, as it is difficult to say much about the book without knowing Fern’s true nature.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler
Photo by Brett Hall Jones

And do spoilers really spoil anything? Some research even shows that knowing what happens can increase reading pleasure, although that might depend on the type of book and type of reader. But I do believe that many people overreact to spoilers. I was able to read the first quarter of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as if I didn’t know that Fern is a chimpanzee, and I’m sure many other readers could, too.

Fowler herself has vacillated about this, initially trying to keep the secret, finally giving up. However several months ago, she was interviewed on ABC Radio National, and the interviewer, Kate Evans, decided they should not reveal it. The interview is a tour de force of how to talk about a book without mentioning the most important thing about it. I enjoyed it, but wondered if listeners who did not know the secret would make much sense of it.

From the first page of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves I felt I was in the hands of a master. We get to know the narrator through her voice – both what she says and how she says it. Here she is, explaining why she and her father hardly speak. “My father was himself a college professor and a pedant to the bone. Every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry. To this day, the Socratic method makes me want to bite someone.”

The novel is heartbreaking, but it is also very funny. In one of Barbara Trapido’s books, a character says that Shakespeare’s comedies are “a better sort of tragedy”.  Humour helps bring characters alive and bonds us to them, so that even in the most distressing parts, we can’t stop reading because we want to know what happens to them (even when we already know).

Chimpanzee

Chimpanzee
Photo: Michele W, Flickr, creative commons LAZ140322_31

Who is to blame for the tragedy that befalls this family? Many readers have judged the father as guilty of both child abuse and animal cruelty. Fowler is surprised at this, and sees him as a well-meaning man who makes mistakes and suffers for it. That may be so, but he is also blinkered by his behaviourist/statistical approach. He cannot foresee what to others might be obvious, that the experiment would be harmful to both subjects, especially given the outcomes of previous such experiments. We might say that he is not a bad man, just a stupid one, but the damage to Rosemary and Fern is just as real.

The experiment, and the resulting terrible fate of the chimpanzee child, symbolize the worldwide dysfunction in the relationship between humans and animals. Fowler does not push this as a “message”. Rather, she involves us so deeply in Rosemary’s story that we cannot help reflecting on the serious questions that arise from it. How can we reduce cruelty to animals? Are illegal Animal Liberation Front tactics justified? Is animal experimentation necessary for its benefits to humans? What is the essential difference (jf any) between humans and animals?

Being immersed in the emotion of this story makes it hard to keep pretending that we do not see the appalling way our species treats other animals everywhere on the planet.

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