“Those who know me now will be surprised to hear that I was a great talker as a child…”
“My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.
Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.
Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.”
Taking her father’s advice, Rosemary Cooke begins her story somewhere near the middle, as a 22 year-old student at the University of California, Davis, reflecting on her family upbringing. It is a subject, she tells us, that she normally avoids. In fact she has a designated story of digression which she can routinely fall into when the topic does occasionally crop up, which will allow her to divulge in a family story that actually reveals nothing about the supposed irregularity of her upbringing. What is she so keen to avoid? Well she soon explains that it has been ten years since she last saw her brother, Lowell, as he boarded a bus and absconded the family home. Why he left is shrouded in mystery, but it seems that since he went he has been getting himself into a spot of bother, especially when the FBI rock up at the family home. What is even more peculiar is that Rosemary has not seen her twin sister, Fern, for 17 years when she left the family home at the tender age of five. Rosemary spent the aftermath of that split in the company of her grandparents, a central narrative in this novel which sees Rosemary piece together her enigmatic childhood and the fragmentation of her family by piecing together the opaque fragments of her recollections alongside information she gleans as the novel proceeds.
You can only discuss We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to a certain point before revealing a crucial plot twist. Karen Joy Fowler goes a miraculous 77 pages before revealing this nuance but I don’t think I will be able to get past this sentence, and so if you are about to read the book and don’t want this information to be revealed then I advise you to bookmark the page and dive straight into the book. But when Fern is unveiled as a chimpanzee who was reared alongside our protagonist as an experiment understandably changes the dynamics of the work. However, by leaving this detail out for the best part of a quarter of the novel, it is fair to say that Fowler wants readers to consider this family as normally as possible before we jump to the conclusions and assumptions we typically would when faced with a family bringing up a chimpanzee as part of a social experiment. After the revelation, the narrative does shift to become more explicitly political and suggestive about animal rights, protection and essentially to the human perspective of creatures not considered to be human. It does so by including numerous anecdotes of similar scientific experiments, their outcomes, consideration of the cases of other creatures and so on. In the end it all focalises back to the empathy we feel towards Fern gained from the first-person perspective of her sister, Rosemary. However one of my reservations about WAACBO is that Rosemary’s digression to discuss other anecdotes and into the minutiae of different research could be difficult to follow at times and did draw attention away from the main strand of the narrative. BUT Rosemary does inform us in her prologue that she has always been a good talker, and so the digressing may also be a realistic part of her personality.
And the realism of her character was, for me, absolutely the best part of this book. The narrative voice is brilliantly engaging, entertaining, but also thought-provoking. Rosemary herself admits that her recollection of her memories is fallible and you soon find that you should take everything Rosemary says with a pinch of salt and try to consider the narrative as objectively as you possibly can. I also found Rosemary’s narration hilarious, a bit edgy and quirky, but always extremely funny. From describing how her didactically-inclined father, “a college professor and a pedant to the bone” ensured that “every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry” to the effervescent exchange that opens the novel when Harlow (I love this description) “threw a spoon that bounced audibly off [a young man’s] forehead”, Rosemary’s ability to polish her anecdotes with a colourful shining of wit makes this novel tireless and a pleasure to read.
Despite its humour, WAACBO is a novel with a poignant purpose and serious themes. It is about animal rights, animal protection and the attitude that humans take towards animal experimentation. It is about discrimination, communication and the human rejection to include ourselves as part of the animal kingdom. But it is foremost a novel about family, about love and what makes us the species that we are. WAACBO is completely original in its blend of laugh-out-loud entertainment, engagement with contemporary world issues and I would thoroughly recommend this Booker Prize longlisted novel.
What did you think of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves? I would love to hear your thoughts!