Saturday 8 March 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Early on in Fowler's latest book you know something is seriously amiss in Rosemary's world. In 1996 she's a fifth year university student who is still trying to find out what she might be good at. Early on she tells us she used to be a great talker. As a child she talked so much that her father would tell her to begin in the middle.
    Which is how We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves starts off - with Rosemary describing a family that has dwindled to just herself and her parents. A family whose members scarcely talk to each other. And we learn that seventeen years ago, Rosemary's sister, Fern, disappeared and a year later her brother left home.
    The story see-saws between the middle - where there's an interesting scene in which Rosemary finds herself charged with disruptive behaviour and assaulting a police officer alongside a flamboyant drama student called Harlow - and the beginning, filling in the gaps of Rosemary's childhood that will lead us to discover the elephant in the room - the story of Fern.
    The middle describes Rosemary's sort-of friendship with Harlow, who has a talent for getting in and out of trouble. Rosemary doesn't usually have friends because she has never been able to trust herself to talk, not wanting to reveal too much of herself, which is usually the foundation for friendship. It is lucky she has a nice flatmate or she would be seriously alone.
    And the reason why she is so alone, so adrift and unable to settle on one particular course or another, is that she was from a baby a part of an experiment, and her sister wasn't really her sister but a chimpanzee. From the 1930s to the 70's, behavioural scientists were fascinated by primates and their similarity to humans and in particular whether or not they could be trained to communicate with people using sign language.
    While much was documented about the animals at the heart of such projects, the story of the children raised with them was not. Taking up the challenge, Fowler has created a well-researched and believable novel that is also hugely original. Rosemary is a quirky, sensitive narrator with a dry sense of humour, when she could so easily have been self-pitying and too damaged to be sympathetic. It is obvious that the experiment that has made Rosemary the way she is has done some harm, but it has meant she has a very original view of the world. At the back of her mind is the thought that Fern and her brother, Lowell, are out there somewhere and it is surely her destiny to try to find them, and this creates a powerful storyline.
    While the novel has a lot to say about the cruelty associated with scientific experimentation on animals - and there are some startlingly haunting images here - there's also plenty of warmth and humour. Fowler creates such interesting characters, and the scenes she throws them into - the bars, cafes, student apartments and even the police station - are entertaining particularly when seen through through Rosemary's eyes.
    It takes a real talent to produce a book that has a powerful message and is also fun to read. And Fowler just keeps getting better and better; this is an author who is definitely on my watch list.

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