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Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: 'We are All Completely Beside Ourselves'

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves
By Karen Joy Fowler
Literary fiction
February 2014
Plume
ISBN: 978-0142180822 (paperback edition)

Not every book that makes it on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, let alone the longlist, is one that clearly deserves the extra attention. In this year, with the eligibility expanded to include American writers published in Great Britain, well, nearly anything might have been placed on the list as this year's panel of judges made its way through the new rules.

What I did not expect was that two American books would end up on the shortlist and that both would be books I feel richer for having read.

First up was the latest Joshua Ferris novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a complex and delightful work. Karen Joy Fowler's We are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a novel I expected to savor. The description felt like a high-concept gimmick: Girl is raised with a chimp for a sister and tells the story of her family. Oh puh-lease. There are animals. It's bound to be quirky. It will have to end badly.

Well, yes and no. And it was worth it.

Rosemary Cooke begins telling us about herself and her family in the middle of the tale, when she is a college student. The reader doesn't see anything about Fern, her sister, the chimpanzee, until nearly a quarter of the way into the book, although I don't consider this a spoiler as this tidbit is the book's main talking point.

What Fowler does here is brilliant for a person coming reluctantly to her book. Instead of the sister thing, I'm drawn into Rosemary's story of being a former non-stop talker who says hardly anything, getting caught up in a college cafeteria disturbance and getting hauled off to jail with a free-spirited girl who is bound to be all kinds of trouble. Rosemary used to have a brother and a sister, although both are gone, and she deliberately moved far away from her parents to go to college in the mid 90's.

But boy, is she quirky and self-deprecating and, except for not telling us right away about those siblings and family history, apparently quite determined to be open and honest. And this comes after a prologue about her and her sister when they were quite young, with their mother telling them a fairy tale about two sisters -- one who speaks in toads and snakes, while the other speaks in flowers and jewels. Oh! Which is which?

The whole thing appears to be one of those dysfunctional family stories, except with an exceptionally wry narrator. She's got to be the young whose words come out as diamonds and roses.

At the as-usual dysfunctional Thanksgiving table, Rosemary gives us several hints about how her family is particularly a mess. One grandmother doesn't think much of psychologists. They're the people like B.F. Skinner, experimenting on their own families, she says. The missing relatives are not referred to. Rosemary notes that if your brother loves you, "I say it counts for something."

When the revelation comes that Rosemary's sister Fern was a chimpanzee, it's not so much a gimmick as a lightbulb moment. Oh. If she was raised along with an baby from a different species since they were both a few months old, and that sibling was removed when she started school, no wonder she never felt like she fit in.

Fowler is brilliant at depicting both how Rosemary and Fern were wild children who adored and competed with each other for the attention and love of the rest of the family. The closeness is there. So also is the sense that Rosemary didn't think of herself as a freak during those early years and how trying to fit in with other human beings has been difficult because of those early years. After all, when one has learned how to act by being with a chimp and then is dumped in with a bunch of kindergartners, crawling over desks and varying notions of personal space that different species maintain can be challenging. So can being called a monkey girl.

Rosemary clearly does not feel sorry for herself, but she does miss Fern. It's nothing that her family discusses. Neither do her parents discuss her missing brother. He left as soon as he was old enough and after Fern was gone. He is on the run and doesn't contact them often. It's pretty easy to guess what his life mission is.

As we go back to a detailed narrative of Rosemary's childhood, both before and after Fern, and back to the present day, Fowler does more than play with the timestream. She also has Rosemary let the reader know about various theories of social and biological science, all of which play roles in the way Rosemary and her family members act and react.

There also is some reporting of various animal experiments, including real families that attempted to raise children and other primates together. Fowler does not spare the reader, but she also does not wallow in the horrific things people do to other animals. Everything she includes is true, from the drugging of spiders to see what kinds of webs they make, to the primate sanctuary at Central Washington University, which closed last year and the two remaining animals moved to a sanctuary in Canada.

The plight of test animals in labs and of children -- human and otherwise -- as they try to survive their upbringing are connected in the novel by the ways in which they are woven together. Parents experiment with ways to care for their children and children try to become their own persons. Rosemary uses Fern and Fern uses Rosemary. Animals of all species do not forget what is done to them.

All the layers, all the characters and all the complicated relationships between them, all the moving back and forth in time, all the memories, all the scientific information -- they work together in a powerfully moving story of what it means to grow up in a family and what it means to love.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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