Books I've Read...

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I chose this book because it was number one on Amazon when I decided I needed something to get me through the journey down to London to visit my boyfriend a few weeks ago. That and it was still only £1.80 which seemed like a bargain to me.

Because I know that e-books are kind of a sucky deal for the author/publisher I sometimes feel a bit bad for buying ones that cost an infinitesimal amount, saying that I’m also quite poor and trying to save up to move out and be a grown up so £1.80 seemed like a good compromise.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Cover from Amazon

I’m just going to mention here that there’s a significant aspect to this story which isn’t revealed until someway into the book. If you’ve managed to avoid finding out what that twist is and don’t want to know then maybe go and read the first 100 pages then come back here because I honestly don’t think it’s possible to review this book without giving it away.


Protagonist Rosemary’s parents are psychologists who embark on an experiment on their children and a baby chimp by attempting to bring them up alongside each other, treating the Chimp, named Fern, in much the same way they treat their daughter of the same age. At one point towards the beginning of the novel Rosemary’s father tells her to tell a story by starting from the middle and this dictates the way Rosemary tells this story – the plot roams back and forth between the past, the further past and it is only towards the end we get to learn what the present situation is.


What strikes me most about this novel is the emphasis on the fragility of memory and the untrustworthyness of stories. Rosemary has clear memories of the time growing up with her ‘twin’ sister, chimp Fern, and the point when she disappeared from her life. Of course if we choose to look back at our own memories of being a five year old (the age when Fern was removed from the family), we would undoubtedly question the reliability of our memories so why should we trust Rosemary’s? Something which she later acknowledges, often retelling stories once she can reflect on the developments which have come from new information provided by the older members of her family.


The reader does not learn of Fern’s true identity until well into the novel (page 77). Rosemary explains that this is because she “wanted [us] to see how it really was”, in Rosemary’s mind Fern was simply her sister and she wishes the reader to understand that before acknowledging the essential lack of blood relation between the two of them. She accuses the reader, probably rightly, that “already, you aren’t thinking of her as my sister”. Fern was not a member of the family the way most readers can relate to being deeply fond of their childhood pet, Fern was as much a sister and daughter as Rosemary was and this is the standpoint that the reader must come from if they are to understand the immense and repetitive heartbreak surrounding her family which shaped Rosemary’s entire life.


Chimpanzee pondering his life like the Thinker...

Chimpanzee pondering his life like the Thinker, Pan troglodytes

It is easy as the outsider to jump to accusations of abuse by the parents in this scenario. They exposed the family to an extraordinary situation which, based on all previous attempts, was unlikely to be sustainable. They allowed Rosemary to grow up to inevitably be different from her peers, struggling against the nickname ‘Monkey Girl’ despite her pointing out that this was factually incorrect – Fern is a Chimpanzee. And then they removed Fern from the family (for reasons which we don’t learn until nearly the end of the novel) and the slow disintegration of the family which followed was only helped along by the despondency of both mother and father. Despite all that, I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for them. If we are to continue with the assumption that they saw Fern as their own child then the loss of that child was bound to have a lasting effect.


We spend much of the time with Rosemary at college, she falls into a wild and frustrating friendship as she tries to escape from her ‘abnormal’ past, there’s a confusion over a missing suitcase which results in finding a puppet which Rosemary becomes strangely attached to, while the regular introduction of alcohol and occasionally drugs to these adventures often leaves the story hazy and confused, something which Rosemary openly admits – again the untrustworthy nature of memory is brought to light.


Overall then We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a book about family, about being different and about personal guilt and regret for past memories. Hanging over all of this is the collective guilt surrounding humanity’s treatment of animals, of our confusing relationship with them. Fowler creates characters we can’t help but feel sympathy for, placing them in a completely foreign situation and forcing us to consider the morality surrounding how we choose to behave towards the rest of the world’s creatures.


That’s all for now