Monday, August 12, 2013

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler


A girl remembers something about her sister, something society and her father would rather she forget

Four great books in a row. Now this is a streak I like. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about the Cooke family: primate researcher Dad, loving Mom, betrayed and angry older brother Lowell and trying-to-understand-it-all narrator Rosemary. The family, however, is incomplete. There was a second daughter, Fern, raised with Rosemary as a twin. One day, when Rosemary was five, she awoke in an entirely new house, with Fern gone, never to be seen or spoken about again. Gone as well are the teams of graduate students who were always writing down and measuring whatever the twins did. Terminated science experiment or abducted child? The book is set in 1996 when Rosemary goes to college at UC Davis, escaping from the memories of her sad unhappy Midwest home. A desultory student, she quickly gets involved with a cute troublemaker and ends up in jail. Meanwhile, big brother Lowell has become a fugitive because of his violent animal rights activities.

The novel kicks off when Rosemary’s sad mother entrusts her with her journals. The suitcase with the journal gets lost in transit, comically serving as the novel’s clock. Rosemary starts to question things about her childhood, and encounters Lowell once again. The plot is excellent,unique and weird, though I’m not sure if all the ends are completely tied up.  There is Rosemary's search for Fern, and then there's a lot of philosophical questions. What is meant by captivity? What is meant by "human"? Her entire life, Rosemary is made distinct by being the monkey girl. Like some of J.M. Coetzee's books, this book has an pretty insistent animal rights subtext. So what's the conclusion? No more animal experimentation? Definitely that. But what else,  No more burgers? No more unthinking dominion by the humans?  No more humans?

The difference between Fern and Rosemary is that Rosemary can talk. (One of the conceits is that as a child Rosemary never shut up, though as an adult she has learned to keep her tongue.)   Fern, however, is hairier,stronger. Much stronger. She can climb walls. The facts of the plot are presented, though these facts are somewhat ambiguously weighed. Once she reaches a certain age, Fern can kill a person in a few minutes, especially someone small and weak. What does the family do after five year old Rosemary feels threatened?  What should the family do?

Rewarding and funny, this is a novel that should be reread.

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