We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This review contains (basically unavoidable) spoilers.

I knew almost nothing about this book before buying it (I’m starting to think this is the best way to approach both novels and films). I hadn’t seen it recommended on my Kindle, I hadn’t Googled any reviews. The only pre-reading information I had about this novel came from the book itself – on the back blurb and in the first few ‘Praise For’ pages. And even that was too much. As Barbara Kingsolver writes of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, to really enjoy this novel you must avoid “everything else written about it.” There is really no way to talk about this book without spoilers, so stop reading this review HERE. Go and read the novel (it’s worth it), and then come back and read about it.

Rosemary Cooke is a twenty-two year old college student. She has a sister the same age as her – Fern – who left when they were 5, and an older brother – Lowell – who left when he was eighteen. Here’s why it’s impossible to write about this book without spoilers: on page 77 (about a quarter of the way in) Fern is revealed to be a chimpanzee, and the rest of the story hinges on this. However, the real mystery (and I won’t spoil this one) is why Fern is gone, and why Lowell blames Rosemary.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is broken into six parts, beginning when Rosemary is in college. Rosemary explains that she is starting in the middle because that’s what her Dad always told her to do (she was extremely talkative as a child). There is a deeper reasoning at work here, though, too – instead of starting from the beginning, she starts in the middle. Just as, with Fern, she starts the reader from a place of similarity (they are sisters) rather than difference (Rosemary is a human and Fern is a chimp). “I wanted the book to start with the assumption of kinship,” Karen Joy Fowler writes.

Fowler’s daughter gave her the idea for the book. They were discussing the Kellogg experiment, where a chimpanzee was raised alongside an infant child. “What would it be like,” Fowler’s daughter wondered, “to be the child in that experiment?” Fowler admits that she didn’t know a lot about chimps before starting the book, but she did know a lot about psychologists – her father was one, and she remembers arguing with him about animal intelligence from about six years old.

I have a fascination with animals that often influences my own writing, and I think this is partly why I found the book so engaging. As with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, however, the voice of the main character was what really drew me in and kept me hooked until the end. Rosemary – the “monkey-girl” – is strange, funny, flawed, but very likeable.

I also appreciated the central idea of the novel, which seems to be that chimps (and animals in general) influence us as much as we do them. The excerpts from Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy” highlighted this, and had me wondering (as I think Fowler intended) what makes something human? In some ways, as Liz Jensen notes in The Guardian, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a “moral comedy,” but it never feels like an “issue” book. The story is always the focus, and the characters are too well drawn to be simple vehicles for a theme. Fowler avoids the PETA impulse (as Ron Charles points out in the Washington Post) by allowing her novel to consider the complexities of the time. This is almost as much a book about the lives of behavioural scientists in the 1970s as it is about animal rights. That being said, Fowler does provide (as an addendum to the novel) more information about chimp-human studies (I recommend checking out the documentary Project Nim, which follows the life of a chimp raised with humans in order to learn American Sign Language).

My biggest problem with this novel (or rather, with the way it was published) is the over-the-top pages of praise at the beginning. “When I finished … I wept,” writes Ruth Ozeki; “the last section … is absolutely sublime,” gushes Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Reading this sort of praise had me expecting much more than a novel could ever deliver. The ending is good, but it’s certainly not sublime (I was more moved by the passage, about midway through, describing Lowell’s visit to an animal research facility – mainly because no one had mentioned it in the first few pages!) I did appreciate Dr Mary Doria Russell’s much more measured description of this book: “You know how people say something is incredible or unbelievable when they mean it’s excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler’s new book is excellent.”

And she is right – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an excellent novel. Great characters, interesting ideas. The present-day plot (the one that follows college-aged Rosemary) fell apart a little bit for me, but the flashbacks her childhood made up for that. Overall, I had a really great time reading this novel and a lot of the ideas and images have stayed with me. Highly recommended.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Fowler has published three story collections and six novels, including The Jane Austen Book Club. If you’re interested in making lives better for chimpanzees in captivity today, Fowler recommends donating to an organization called Save the Chimps.

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