We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

Ever have those moments where books, TV shows, adverts, YouTube videos of animals…., turn you into a weepy mess affect you in a way you weren’t expecting? I present you with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I knew I was going to enjoy it as soon as I began, the writing style was beautiful and the melancholic prose swept by. There is a twist in this book, one I will be discussing so try not to pass the spoiler wall (A.K.A capitalised sentence of overly dramatic warning). The twist surprised me, and got me thinking about things I’ve not ever contemplated before.

 Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined. Synopsis from GoodReads.

Rosemary’s reflection on her family history, the disappearance of her sister, the abandonment of her brother was fascinating. It’s laced with guilt, false memories and moments of madness. Humans playing god, arrogant faith in their own intellect.

Rosemary has hidden within herself, lost her voice. Her voice is not only intrinsically linked with her sister Fern, but an aspect of her that makes her different, draws attention to her. This story spans her life, but we spend a lot of time in the middle, where in her 20s wounds begins to heal. Rosemary has lived with guilt since she was five years old, and throughout her life finds it impossible to escape. She doesn’t have the memories, the primary evidence, to know if what she did was right or wrong. Even as she begins to repair the damage, the guilt stays with her, and I expect it always will.

DO NOT CONTINUE TO READ IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILT – I recommend not being spoilt, it’s so important you go into this book without expectations.

Rosemary’s sister Fern is a Chimpanzee. They were raised together as an experiment on the cognitive power of chimps, when Rosemary was five years old something happened and Fern was sent away. Until the return of her brother Lowell and the introduction of wild child Harlow, Rosemary suppresses the memory of her sister and her involvement in the process.

Jenny from Reading the End said she loved this book, and I can see why. I’ve never given much thought to animal welfare, it’s never thought about it in relation to my life. Now I have a different perspective. I don’t want animals to be test subjects and experiments, I don’t want anything to suffer for my benefit. Perhaps given enough time to distance myself from this feeling I will feel otherwise, but for now, my heart is broken.

This isn’t a novel just about animals and experiments, it’s about the human condition – what makes us human. Rosemary was a chimp child and Fern a child chimp. Each influenced the other as was obvious when rosemary began school. Rosemary is as damaged by the experiment as Fern was, only fern suffered for her difference. As we are introduced to Fern as if she were human, and that I loved, by the time I knew she was a chimp it didn’t matter. I needed to meet Fern as Rosemary’s sister, because after all, to Rosemary and Lowell that is what she was. If anything I began to like Fern, which was hard at times – when her natural chimpness hurt Rosemary. Either physically with her strength, or emotionally when Fern’s novelty won her love from the Graduate students that Rosemary – a non novelty – wasn’t given.

It was also an interesting look on the nature of memory. Rosemary, Lowell and their parents all remember Fern’s departure differently. Rosemary repressed her memory and a part of herself she associated with Fern’s disappearance – her voice. She, post experiment, was punished for being different in contrast to Fern being praised for being different during the experiment.

The red poker chip is where I really began sobbing, and I can’t explain why, I’ve said enough. But, much as I did in Philosophy class, I am now struggling to find our uniqueness that separates us that makes us human and not an animal. Because, we aren’t that different, we just do the same things more intricately. We fight, have social rules, hierarchies, tribes, but on larger scales with more minutia.

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves is a beautiful book, please read it.

15 thoughts on “Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

  1. I think I heard the spoiler on an NPR show or something when this first came out, but I’m wondering how you think this would be if you already knew? I’m really interested in reading it, but I’m just wondering if my experience might be different since I know the twist. I’m glad it was such a great read for you!


    1. I think I would have liked Rosemary more and Fern less if I had known the twist. Not knowing allowed me to accept and understand Rosemary’s guilt more once the truth was revealed. That, and I liked that I was introduced, in my head to Fern as a human – she almost was one. In the eyes of this family at least.


  2. So, so pleased that you liked this. It didn’t make me cry, but I did get choked up by the red poker chip (and at a few other moments). I confess I am glad I knew going in what the big spoiler was going to be — I honestly don’t think I’d have read the book without knowing that first.


    1. Oh, and also, the differing memories of the different characters around what happened with Fern was just my favorite thing. Because it is so true! People’s memories do diverge, and you never have any good way of knowing whose memory is the truth.


      1. Same! It added a layer of realism I really enjoyed. Reminded me of my Cultural Memory studies at University – traumatic events are often remembered vastly differently by people involved in the same action.


  3. I didn’t know about this book and probably won’t read it, but as a vegan and an animal rights advocate, I’m glad that it’s making people think about animal welfare issues.


  4. I have this book waiting on my Kindle! I will come back and read your full review once I have read it but glad you liked it. Means I probably will as well!


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