We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
As a child, Rosemary never stopped talking, so why, now she’s a young woman at college, doesn’t she talk very much at all?
She used to have a sister, Fern, the same age as her, and an older brother, Lowell. She loved both fiercely but they have vanished from her life, for reasons she can’t face, and no one could guess.
‘A dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative. It is anything but.’ – Alice Sebold
On to book three of this year’s Booker shortlist, and it’s definitely my favourite yet. I sort of wish I’d read this one before To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – it might have put me off the lengthy rant about non-Commonwealth authors being shortlisted!
Yes, this is one of two American authors shortlisted this year, in the first year to allow Americans (and a whole load of other nationalities, but whatevs…) a shot at the prize. I was pretty underwhelmed by TRAAADH, but WAACBO completely knocked my socks off!
This might be a bit of a short review as I really want to avoid giving away too many details about the plot. There’s not a “big twist” that I’m trying to avoid (which is good because I really loathe Big Twists as plot devices), but there’s a few plot details that are telegraphed early on, but still caught me off guard (in a very good way) when revealed just over a quarter of the way in, and I don’t want to rob anyone else of that experience. My advice is: if you’re planning to read this, and don’t know too much about it already, keep it that way. I’ll do my best to keep this review spoiler-free.
Rosemary is narrating her story in stages – jumping from her time as a college student in 1996, back to her childhood, and gradually filling in the gaps in between. She is telling the story from the present day, so we get hints of what the story has led to in her current life.
In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one.
Rosemary and her brother and sister had what immediately appears a slightly unusual childhood: their father is a scientist conducting behavioural research on animals, their house is full of grad students and test subjects, including a pair of rats rejected by the lab and subsequently upgraded from “research subject” to “pet”. The adult Rosemary, narrating, does a good job of portraying her younger self’s naive acceptance of this, as children accept anything around them as normal, and simultaneously getting across her adult self’s growing disgust what her father was involved in.
Was my father kind to animals? I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of the lab rats then. Let’s just say that my father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise. He would never have run over a cat if there was nothing to be learned by doing so.
This forms the background to the book, which is primarily about family, memory and loss. Rosemary is tormented by the disappearance of her sister when she was just five years old. By the time she is at university in 1996 she has mostly repressed these thoughts, along with the longing for her brother, who left home when she was 12 and never returned. When her brother makes a reappearance into her life, it stirs up long-buried memories, as well as finally providing the answer to what happened to her sister all those years ago.
I felt her loss in a powerfully physical way. I missed her smell and the sticky wet of her breath on my neck… It was an ache, a hunger on the surface of my skin.
I found these passages incredibly affecting – this book made me cry more than once. I think I identified with Rosemary’s loss as a twin myself, and also having lost a sister (my eldest sister died suddenly a few years ago). I don’t know if this would have had such a strong effect on me if it didn’t speak to my experiences like that, but I think I would still have found it very moving and upsetting.
There’s loads more I could say about this book, but I don’t want to go into any more detail for fear of giving something away! So I’ll just leave it at this: this book made me think, and see the world through different eyes. That, to me, is what a good book should do, and something I was hoping to see more of on the Booker shortlist this year. This is my favourite of the shortlisted titles so far.