Review: “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler


This review contains spoilers, but I will give an appropriate warning beforehand.

There are issues that come with reading a book where you are already aware of the big twist at the centre of the story. Many potential readers of Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, one of the first American written novels to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, have encountered this problem, given that certain editions of the cover give the game away. It’s understandable why publishers would choose to do this, especially since such a kicker brings more readers to the table. Strangely, while the novel contains a potentially fantastical element, the ultimate product is a familiar tale of a fractured family unit and the scars left behind by difficult events.

Rosemary, the novel’s protagonist, has a selective memory, little consideration for her future and a bone dry sense of humour. Little seems to phase her, from becoming embroiled in a public domestic dispute that sees her arrested to discovering a ventriloquist’s dummy in the luggage sent to her apartment. She admits that her daily behaviour is anti-social and somewhat off-putting to those around her, but over time it is revealed how many of her tics are learned behaviour from her childhood and events she, and her family, never quite recovered from. At its centre, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tackles the nature versus nurture argument, and leans perilously close to being a “issues” novel, but Fowler’s handling of Rosemary and her family’s various issues is deft, a couple of clunky moment aside. There’s a naturalness to her prose, conversational in style and often extremely funny, that is easy to warm to, even when Rosemary is not. Her regret, her coming to terms with that she has worked so hard to forget, and her loss ring true and often painfully so.

I’m going to spoil the big twist because I feel it’s important to convey my exact feelings on the novel. They’re inextricably tied together, but if you want my thoughts without being spoiled, I highly recommend the novel.

Spoilers ahead.

When Rosemary was 5 years old, her sister Fern, her closest friend and ally from birth, was sent away, causing the family to spiral out of control.

Fern is a chimpanzee.

This fact is dropped into the story about a quarter of the way through, and so casually that you could easily pass by it if you were skimming. Rosemary’s reasoning for omitting this detail previously is that she didn’t want the reader to dismiss the importance of Fern’s role in the family. She was, after all, her sister, raised from birth by her side and treated as an equal. To have her taken away with seeming ease and disposed of like a disobedient pet causes irrevocable damage to Rosemary, her older brother, her parents and the overall family unit. Siblings can’t just be gotten rid of, after all.

The case of chimpanzees being raised like human children is one with a strong basis in modern scientific research, with several notable examples having taken place over the past several decades. The documentary Project Nim examined one particular case with heart-breaking results. It’s clear that Fowler has done her research, sometimes exhibited a touch too heavily with long segments of psychological analysis. What could have easily slid into cheap joke territory ends up being a sensitive and often fascinating read that will relate to more readers than one may originally imagine. Every family is unhappy in its own way, after all.


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