Wednesday 2 September 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Greenacre Writers (July) Book Club Reviews
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014) by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler is the award-winning author of three short story collections and six novels, including her bestselling The Jane Austen Book Club (2004). She is an American author of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Her work often centers on the nineteenth century, the lives of women, and alienation. Her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a remarkable story of a seemingly ordinary American family, where behavioral science trumps love, where a chimp is a sister, and daughters are research subjects.

Ruth Cohen:

I read "We are all completely beside ourselves" and really enjoyed it.

I thought it was well constructed, very funny in places, loved the early scene with Harlow for example, and very poignant. The scene with Harlow typified the subtlety of the book, as funny as it was, later you realise that Rose was responding to Harlow in a chimp way and manifesting chimp behaviour.

I liked the suspense build ups, not knowing at first that Fern was a chimp, the characters and relationships in the family ( what happened to Rose's mother, what sort of people were her parents, ambiguity about time, when things happened, were Rose's needs sacrificed to Fleurs? etc etc). In fact the use of time was well done, starting in the middle and keeping one guessing so that my views of the characters and what really happened and when kept changing as another fact was revealed.

My only quibble was the element of didactism that crept in. Admittedly, I did not know about all the twin studies, and the animal cruelty is horrific. But too often we were given so much information that for me it took away from the story which I think exemplified the issues dramatically enough without having them pushed in your face.

However overall a fascinating book, a real page- turner, and one I had never heard of but would recommend. Thank you to whoever suggested it.

Mumpuni Murniati:

When I was five, my parents started to live. For someone dear to them had not 'gone', was still living in spite of his prognosis. 
Their first child was then eleven years old and severely disabled. Doctors said most likely he would not have reached ten. I understand how to love 'a sibling' so different yet so similar. I didn't fully realise until I was 10 that he was not 'normal'. He was my brother; never mind he wasn't like a brother most girls had known.

And therefore Rosemary's jumbled of emotions and quirkiness are two things to which I can relate throughout the book. Fowler's depictions are intriguing but not surprising; she's shaped her protagonist very well that only shows her maturity as an author. Also, she has an authority - childhood experience- on the subject of animal experiment. I love Rosemary's use of language and how each word is incorporated in a situation. I used to like 'strange' and 'taboo' words (basically I love words) and grew up faster due to my brother's condition.

And yet Rosemary's loss is surreal to me. There are things on the book that do not make sense. On the one hand, her responses by creating 'Mary' and grieving for Lowell's non-existing physical appearance are natural. On the other, it's strange she isn't able to work out where Fern has gone much sooner and even joined in with her brother to release her, given she's worshipped Lowell. Have I missed something? Or does the author mean that Rose has actually realised where Fern has been kept but decided not to do 'anything stupid' other than just being near to her?

From personal experience I understand the sudden disappearance of a sibling would have been like a typhoon that had swept anything in her way. Unfortunately, I see only little Rosemary's strong reactions other than her loneliness and her being unconfident in forming and acknowledging a friendship. In fact, it is her mother's 'inability to function' for sometime and her later acts to resolve what she should have done long time ago that speak a lot to me.

Does Rosemary seem to accept it just because she is a small child when separated from her sister? I doubt it. Yes, Fern is irreplaceable - not even Harlow can help. But no, Rose is neither ill nor angry nor continually nags about Fern to her parents. Instead she learns to accept it. I'm astonished. Although in my case it's different: I knew my brother wouldn't come back (to Earth) because he was 19 years old when he died. Only 10% of hypsarrhythmia sufferers would live beyond 10 years old. My brother died in 1988. For years afterwards I still missed him very much although I didn't understand I'd been grieving. The first two chapters in the book capture my subconscious sense of loss wonderfully and they actually made me think of him again.

Despite the missing 'puzzle pieces' in the plot, I believe the novel is highly commendable. For its great title, for the strong characterisation in Rosemary, for discussing the issues that make someone a human, for digging deep into what makes a family a family and for making me smile and reflect in some scenes.

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