“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

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“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.

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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!

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

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In terms of plot, this short novel avoids complication. It is the story of a man and his son, who remain unnamed for the duration of the narrative, as they traipse through a barren, desolate landscape heading along The Road to the east-coast in order to avoid the deathly chill of winter. What has happened to this post-apocalyptic world is never explicitly revealed, but the torrid effects of what seems to be a type of deflagration are laid bare by McCarthy. Firstly there is the monochromatic grey landscape; the land’s produce is torched and withered, completely dead, and the air is polluted by the abundance of ash which clogs the lungs of the Man and leaves him coughing in the cold, dark nights. This heavy murk also covers the sun, a view of which seems to be rare if not impossible. At one point the Boy asks:

 

“If you were a crow could you fly up high enough to see the sun?

 

Yes. You could.

 

I thought so. That would be really neat.

 

Yes it would. Are you ready?”

 

The old landscape which, along with the absent sun, once fed and nourished life, is a mythical idea here, and instead the land is destructive and treacherous. The species of life that the Man and the Boy encounter on their journey along the road is suspicious, fearsome and almost unrecognisable. In a world where humanity survives on tinned and powdered goods, man has turned to cannibalism for survival. This forces the novel’s protagonist to take an understandably hostile approach towards strangers, one which is, at times, heart-breaking for the Boy.  Throughout the novel, he yearns for human contact, for goodness, for love. But The Road is a world defined by the stoicism and grit of the Man, and a glum acceptance the slight flicker of the flame of love and goodness only remains in this world because of these two characters.

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I found McCarthy’s prose to be fantastically simple, highly effective and emotive, but I was a bit stumped by his iconoclastic style. He seems (perhaps like a lot of us) to dislike grammar and his paragraphs are all very fragmented and spaced out across the page. This spacing of the paragraphs, I think, forces the reader to dwell on the sharp poignancy of the language and allows you to really feel the emotional weight of the plot. I wonder whether the collapse of the world as we know it is being mirrored by McCarthy’s prose in The Road, with the absence of particularly hyphens and apostrophes. Nevertheless, stylistically it certainly works and I thought McCarthy’s original and experimental approach to style and grammar was both interesting and refreshing and it is something I would love to see in more contemporary fiction.

 

 

Thematically, The Road is extremely rich and is a springboard for discussion on an abundant array of topics. I thought the portrayal of the Boy, a character who has grown up in this post-apocalyptic world, was extremely well done and one of the main strengths of the novel. The attention to detail that McCarthy pays to how a child would psychologically and physically mature in this dystopia pays its dues and gives us a genuinely realistic character who draws out our empathy. This is seen, for example, in the son’s incapacity to imagine the pre-dystopian, seemingly mythical world of green splendour, love and life that his father describes to him through stories. And again when the boy uses expressions and clichés gleaned from his father, “long term goals” and “warm at last” are memorable examples, and his father reacts with a mixture of confusion and pleasure at his son’s development. Glints of humanity such as these are charming, pleasant but also heart-wrenching and depressing when facing the bleak reality of their fate. McCarthy is able to imitate the repetition of routine of their day-to-day life without the novel ever feeling tedious or repetitive. He does this by recounting in meticulous detail the minutiae of their lives, and this style reminds us that although we might have a samey, tedious weekly routine, no day is ever the same and we should not take this for granted, especially in the wake of The Road. Another final point of interest is that the novel contains nearly no woman at all, and the women that do appear just pass by as part of a group. The Man and the Boy do skirt around the subject of the Boy’s mother, but in relatively short time. The absence of women, for me, coincides with the absence of life, love and goodness in this novel. In fact, you could read this novel as a depiction of what would happen if men were in charge of weapons of mass destruction that could realise McCarthy’s dystopia (Hmmm…).

 

There’s so many more facets to this novel that I have not even touched upon and for this reason I it would be a wonderful novel for a book club to explore or for a student to write about for a dystopian-based essay. If you haven’t read this novel, I urge you to go out and grab it and Pan MacMillan have a wonderfully designed edition (see below) designed by David Pearson that you can pick up online from Foyles here (or in any good local independent bookshop on your high-street!), an edition whose cover is supremely more tasteful that my own!

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Thanks for reading, let me know what you thought of The Road and if I have missed any interesting angles.