For a number of reasons I resisted reading Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker short listed novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it was first published in 2013. Like so many book club addicts I’d read and enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club but not enough to send me scurrying off to discover whatever else she had written nor to ensure that any current work would automatically find its way on to my library list. And, again like many others (all presumably people who hadn’t read the novel) I was surprised when this latest book made the Booker long list and astounded when it reached the short list. She simply hadn’t struck me as the sort of writer that would attract the judges of literary awards.
Well, more fool me! And more fool anyone else who has been avoiding this novel for whatever reason, because having read it twice in quick succession I think it is a remarkable work and I will certainly be going back to explore Fowler’s previous books as well as adding her to the list of writers whose new releases I automatically read as soon as I possibly can.
So, what is it about this book that makes it stand out as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year? Well, to begin with, it is incredibly readable. Even when it is dealing with some intensely difficult subjects the pages seem to turn themselves. Fowler knows how to tell a story that involves the reader from the start, as well as being able to create characters you care about and empathise with. However hard it may be to read on in some sections, you simply have to in order to find out what happens to these individuals. By the time you get to the difficult bits you are too engaged to duck out.
Then there is the humour. Despite the fact that there is very little in the lives of the people we meet to laugh about, Fowler still keeps us chuckling and, at times, laughing out loud. Some sections (and I’ll quote one later) are nothing short of joyous.
Finally, and this is where I suspect the Booker nomination came from, there are the subjects that she is addressing. And from this point on I am going to assume that you have either read the book or know what it is about. If you don’t, then be aware that there is a reveal around seventy pages in and I am not going to avoid talking about it. In fact, when I came to read the book for the first time (two of my book groups had chosen it for the same month) I did know that one of the main characters was a chimpanzee. Unfortunately, I didn’t know which one and consequently tried to read the first chapters thinking it was going to be revealed that it was Rosie. Let me tell you, that was a problem! As it happens Rosie, who is in her early twenties when we first meet her, is definitely human but has been brought up until the age of five with Fern, who is a chimpanzee and who lives with the family as if the two girls are sisters. But at the point, after an event that Rosie has wiped from her memory, Fern vanishes and the whole structure of the family crumbles.
Inevitably, much of the book is about the animal rights issues of using primates in experimentation: something that was not uncommon in the latter part of the last century. I’m not going to explore those here, because I am sure that when the book came out there were blogs and articles aplenty on the topic. However, there are two other areas that I felt Fowler was addressing that I would like to mention because I think they are important to her but have been rather overlooked in discussion.
Firstly, this is an intensely feminist novel. It celebrates the sisterhood that is possible among the most profoundly different individuals, while at the same time refusing to shy away from the fact that in many societies (including that of the chimpanzee) even the highest ranked females are seen as being beneath the lowest ranked males. Keeping those females subdued by sexual means is common. In one chimpanzee colony, we are told, a female was observed being raped 170 times in a three day period. However, as Rosie’s university professor remarks
most religions [are] obsessed with policing female sexual behaviour, …for many it [is] their entire raison d’être… “The only difference ,” he said, “is that no chimp has ever claimed that he was following God’s orders.
At the book’s conclusion it is a sisterhood of Rosie, her mother, Fern and Fern’s daughter, Hazel that somehow manages to re-establish a tentative relationship despite all the damage that has been done to them throughout the years since Fern’s removal from the family. They don’t succeed in rebuilding the joyous companionship of those early years but for Rosie at least, the memory lingers on.
MEMORY TWO: one of the graduate students has gotten a free compilation tape from the local radio station and she throws it into the cassette player. We are dancing together, all the girls – Mom and Grandma Donna, Fern and I, the grad students, Amy, Caroline, and Courtney. We are rocking it old-school to “Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath,” “Palisades Park,” and “Love Potion No. 9”
I didn’t know if it was day or night. I started kissing everything in sight.
Fern is smacking her feet down, loud as she can, jumping sometimes onto the backs of the chairs and then landing on the floor. She makes Amy swing her, and laughs the whole time she is in the air. I am shaking it, popping it, laying it down and working it out. “Conga line,” Mom calls. She snakes us through the downstairs, Fern and I dancing, dancing, dancing behind her.
I am so jealous of that memory. I would have given anything to have been there and have the right to share it.
However, what interested me most was the way in which the book explores the nature of story, the morals it is used to teach, the way in which the author, the narrator and the reader interact with each other and what happens when it is you who are telling your story to yourself through an act of memory.
Once upon a time, there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same.
The story of Rosie and Fern seems to have had the archetypal beginning. But, as Rosie realises, when applied to real life, fairy tales run out of road. It may be all well and good to fantasise about a situation in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, but when the elder sister’s subsequent banishment actually happens there are consequences that cannot be imagined away. The rest of the family don’t live happily ever after, they live in the knowledge of what they have done.
Or do they? Because of the way in which she structures the story Fowler is able to play around with the reader’s perceptions. If you don’t know what is coming then you are likely to interpret what happens to Rosie in the book’s opening chapters very differently from the way you react when you know her past history. As Rosie remarks, by starting the story in the middle she deprives readers of information that would help them build up a true picture of the situation. But what becomes apparent is that Rosie is also depriving herself of necessary information because the stories that she tells are almost certainly incomplete.
the happening and the telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it.
Rosie has blocked memories of certain incidents because dealing with the implications of what really happened would be too painful. And, even when she forces herself to bring those memories to the fore she still can never be certain that they are true.
Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten. The new representation is called a screen memory. A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.
Perhaps the story that Rosie eventually remembers and tells us is the truth of what happened. Perhaps it is a screen memory. Neither she nor we will ever know the truth of the matter. What we do know are the consequences, consequences that no one, not Rosie, her family or the reader, will never be able to walk away from. What each one of us has encountered in the course of this story we will have to live with for the rest of our lives.