“Skip the beginning. Start in the middle”, Rosemary Cooke, the narrator in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves declares in the prologue. It is ten years since she has last seen her brother Lowell who has not been heard of since he suddenly left their home in Indiana. And it is 17 years since the unexplained disappearance of her sister, Fern. Both events haunt her, shaping the semi-solitary life she has chosen. Rosemary is at University, a distracted student, destined for ordinariness but wistful for a future being “either widely admired or stealthily influential”.
Starting in the middle gives any reader who has somehow managed to miss the reviews, or the blurb on the book jacket cover, a fighting chance of surprise when the secret to Rosemary’s past and to the novel’s main thread, is revealed: Fern, her beloved sibling, was a chimpanzee. But Fowler has achieved such structural technique that even when you know in advance, it’s still a wildly successful twist when it arrives. Until they were five years old the two girls were raised as equal siblings, to all intents and purpose twins, in an experiment into behavior carried out by her psychologist, father. Every activity carried out by the “twins” is monitored and compared by a devoted outer family of grad students. Progress is measured. Failings noted.
But the experiment proves to be more of a family bonding success than her parents could have anticipated as they discover when it is abruptly aborted. Lowell leaves home in search of his beloved “sister” but descends deeper and deeper into the illegal and violent world of the Animal Liberation Front. Rosemary is desolate at losing both “siblings” the core relationships she can’t ever escape, remaining “monkey-girl” at school occasionally resorting instinctively to the kind of “body language” that sets her apart. Little wonder she’s seen as slightly unhinged at university, magnet for like sorts such as the unhinged Harlow and her “friend” the ventriloquist’s doll. It is only on Lowell’s surprise return that Rosemary is able to find out what really happened to Fern and face her own deep feelings of guilt at attempts at restitution.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves could so easy have been just a wry comedy about the terrible things obsessive parents can do to their children. But it’s much more: it deftly delves into what is family and the selective and often unreliable process of memory. Even without the simian angle there are some scary home truths about “normal” families reflected in the book’s pages.
Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is published by Serpent’s Tai. It won the 2014 Pen/Faulkner Prize for Fiction and is on the long list for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Her previous novels include The Jane Austen Book Club which was turned into a movie.