Title: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (Allen and Unwin in Australia)
Publication Date: 30th May 2013
Rating: 5/5 stars
What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment?
Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell.
Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
This has honestly been one of my favourite reads of this year. It is beautifully written and incorporates science into the fiction absolutely perfectly. Having studied lots of science in high school and one year at university, I love reading fictions about the scientific method.
But this book is not only for those who love science and its research. At its core, it is about Rosemary’s struggle to come to terms with her past, years after the events which shaped her have occurred. She doesn’t like to speak about her sister, Fern, but she is essential to Rosemary’s story.
The flow of the story takes a moment to get into. Rosemary chooses to start in the middle, giving us little context for what she has to say. There is a major twist on page 77, which offers us this context and enables the reader to engage more strongly with Rosemary’s life. I knew this twist before I read the novel, having read a review which failed to hide spoilers! While it didn’t affect my love for this book, I think that it would have been nice to be surprised. I was unaware until after completing the book that it was supposed to be a major plot twist, therefore I have chosen not to include this aspect in my review.
The narrative voice swaps between the present, the past and even the future, but Fowler has made it so effortless for the reader to switch between this time zones. I believe that this muddled timeline emphasises the power of the story, by highlighting Rosemary’s reflections, both at her current age and during her childhood.
The story explores powerful questions about humanity – what makes someone human? How far should we go in the name of scientific research? What are the ramifications when we use children in scientific experiments? Should parents be allowed to make that kind of decision for their child? Rosemary is particularly haunted by her childhood, and in some instances she describes herself as abnormal. The circumstances in which she was raised, she feels, didn’t prepare her for normal life.
There is also the problem of her missing brother, Lowell, who makes a return during the story. He went missing as soon as he turned eighteen, determined to discover Fern’s fate. What he did discover made him irreparably angry with his family, and he resolved to become an activist rather than return to the mundanity of his family’s lives.
Fern is missing too, and this has a much greater toll on Rosemary than the disappearance of her brother. She believes that she was the cause of Fern’s banishment, a result of her jealousy and her tendency to tell the adults on Fern.
I feel that there is so much more I could have written about this fantastic story, but it is simply impossible without revealing the twist. I hope that I can inspire some of you to read the book, and perhaps in the New Year I will edit this post, or write another one entirely, divulging my complete feelings about the story, with spoilers abounding! However, to my mind, mystery is always preferable. It is far more fun to discover something by yourself, particularly when it comes to reading!
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a beautifully written book, with complex characters, which raises intriguing questions about scientific research and methods. I would strongly recommend this book, for people of all ages, as it touches on important questions about humanity. Not only that, but it is a fascinating whirlwind of a read, written with stunning technique. While I enjoyed Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, this has definitely been my favourite from the shortlist.