Book review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler


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The Independent Culture

If the British obsession is with class, then the American obsession is surely not with money but with family. From Jonathan Franzen to Joyce Carol Oates and Marilynne Robinson, American novelists repeatedly worry away at the family state and how easily it can be disrupted, most often by the intrusion of a “stranger”, whether in the form of an act of violence, an incurable disease, or a disturbed prodigal son.

Karen Joy Fowler is best known to us for The Jane Austen Book Club, an immensely popular and intelligent novel about people looking for love. In this latest work, love is again the theme, this time entwined with the family and the notion of such “stranger” intrusion. But the form that intrusion takes is highly particular in this case, and its consequences for the family concerned are equally particular. Publicity for this book prefers not to reveal the nature of the intrusion, but after thinking long and hard about it, I am at least going to warn you that I’m about to reveal what it is. If you don’t want to know, look away now, but Fowler raises important issues that are impossible to discuss without mentioning it.

Rosemary is the narrator of this tale, which begins, as she points out, “in the middle”, in 1996, when she is attending the University of California in Davis. She is mistakenly arrested when another woman, Harlow, creates a disturbance in the canteen, but thereafter she and Harlow become friends. Rosemary has a problem making friends – she has lost both a sister and a brother, is barely on speaking terms with her parents, and tolerates her flat-mate, Todd.

She has only ever had one-night stands, and admits she puts people off with her odd behaviour, the strange looks she gives. But some of that behaviour is learnt behaviour. And she learnt it during the first six years of her life when her father, a psychologist, introduced a baby chimpanzee into the family, to be brought up as a human child so that he could observe her behaviour and draw conclusions about language use and character development. It has some basis in reality: at the end of 2012, a documentary was aired in the US about the life of Nim Chimpsky, who was raised in the Lafarge family in New York as part of an experiment to see if apes could be taught to speak. It was a tragic case. The chimp was eventually taken from the family after several years and placed with the Institute of Primate Studies. He died, some believe, from a “broken heart”.

Fowler’s fictional chimpanzee, Fern, is taken from her family too after several years, for reasons that remain unclear until the end of the book. But the effect of her loss is enormous: Rosemary’s mother has a breakdown, her father becomes an alcoholic, and her adored older brother, Lowell, simply walks off into the night, to become an anonymous fighter for the Animal Liberation Front, only occasionally sending postcards from various locations to reassure his family he is still alive.

Rosemary herself, brought up for six years with a “twin” who mimicked her, played with her, and “talked” to her through sign language, feels doubly bereft at the loss of her brother and “sister”, as though a piece of her is missing. Where Fern went, what happened to her, is part of the book’s exploration, and it’s heart-breaking.

Fowler has that ability, present in a great deal of American writers’ work, to ease you into a family situation and make you feel as if you’d known every single member personally for years. And it’s with such ease that she also asks the important questions, about how and why we love one another, what happens when that love is taken away, and what responsibility we have once we instill and respond to love. “And then this one crazy sister goes and ruins it all,” says a fellow student of Rosemary’s about her own family. But who is the crazy sister in Rosemary’s family? Who has really “ruined it all”?

Fowler is, of course, also making a humanitarian point about those experiments in the past, and those experiments that are still going on. Rosemary’s trick when anything upsets her is simply to go to sleep and forget about it (“Lowell heard that Fern was in a cage in South Dakota and he took off that very night. I heard the same thing and my response was to pretend I hadn’t heard it”). Are we sleeping, pretending not to hear, when it comes to our treatment of other beings on the planet? Novels with “issues” can be a hard sell, but Fowler’s decision to make Rosemary’s loss and regret, her pain and her guilt, the main focus of her tale, makes for an irresistible, if often distressing, read.