Thursday, 25 September 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
My fist read from the Booker Prize Shortlist 2014 and it's off to a brilliant start. Firstly, it's really difficult to talk about this book without giving away the reveal. Though it's a relatively early one (page 70 odd) the narrator is depending on her reader "going in blind" so to speak. She comes from a research family; call it measuring a reaction to an unseen circumstance. I'd hate to spoil her data collection...

The book is narrated by Rosemary who states early on that starting in the middle of the story is as good a place as any; something that people used to tell her as an incessantly talkative child. She starts with college, switches to childhood and works back to the middle in the end. It's all about her family, or at least what's left of it. She's barely on speaking terms with her parents (Alcoholic psychologist father, depressive post-breakdown mother). Her revered brother simply walked out 10 years ago and never returned and her sister Fern, about whom nobody will speak, was whisked off never to be seen again one night when Rosie was 5 and was bundled off to her Grandparents' for a few weeks.

Rosie's story comes in chunks with little chronology, but much of the middle takes place in 1996 during her unusually long undergraduate education at a California college. The solitary student, so different from her talkative early years, is arrested in an uncharacteristic blip when a police officer mistakes her for a hysterical student. The hysterical student in question is Harlow, also arrested, who becomes one of the first long term friends of Rosemary's life- a whirlwind of bad decisions, impulses and petty crime, Harlow introduces her new friend to narcotics and they get to be on first name terms with the campus police. Add to that a paranoid apartment block manager, a purloined antique marionette and a 'nice but puts up with a lot' flatmate, and that's about all the people in Rosemary's life.

Though time is fragmented and split into chunks, the narrative heaves throughout with Rosemary's grief for her absent sister, and for the much loved Lowell who is involved with domestic terrorist activities with the Animal Liberation Front. He communicates with the family rarely and only by anonymous, cryptic postcards. Rosemary struggles her whole life to fit in, because her whole character has been shaped and reflected in her lost sister. She has literally lost a half of herself.

There's really complex, overlapping themes of identity and grief in this book, and arguments about nature versus nurture and learned behaviour that are explored in ways that are alternately really funny, and incredibly touching. She also speaks at length about the slippery nature of memory and how easy it is to misremember, to replace recollections with photos or stories and how easy it is to just forget or block things out. I think the uncertainty of some of Rosemary's recollections was really well crafted and played on some of the thoughts and wonderings that many readers must have- everybody has memories that they think they remember that could realistically be inventions, scenes from forgotten films or a preferred version of events that have just sort of taped over the real events. I loved Rosemary as a character; I thought her anger and confusion at the state of her family was so believable, she was intelligent, sarcastic and resigned to her "uncanny valley" weirdness.

In less skilful hands, this novel could get a bit daft and seem unlikely, impossible even. The contrast between the comedy capers and the themes explored could have become an obstacle to a lesser writer. As it is, Fowler manages to tackle the absurd and the profound with grace and with emotion. The book raises questions about familial loyalty, animal rights, parental deceit, guilt, self-delusion and self-doubt and even the theme of ownership all trussed up in the more universally relatable dysfunctional family package. A really engrossing, thought provoking book that is an absolute masterpiece in misdirection and playing with the readers' perceptions. Brilliant storytelling, an unforgettable narrator an unforgettable family.

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