“In everyone’s life there are people who stay and people who go and people who are taken against their will.”
It would be impossible to review this book without disclosing an important detail that Karen Joy Fowler intended to stay hidden until a third of the way through and it should really remain a secret for anyone going into this book. If you’d rather it stay that way, then I warn you beforehand.
Fowler is probably most well known for penning the wildly popular Jane Austen Book Club, with the film adaptation starring Emily Blunt and Hugh Dancy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is her seventh novel and it made it onto this year’s ManBooker Prize shortlist.
The novel focuses on the Cooke family and is narrated by the youngest daughter, Rosemary Cooke. As a child, Rosemary had the gift of the gab and would charm everyone with her endless stories, but as an adult she barely speaks. In the present time, she is an isolated college student who denies her friends any insight into who she is, but she hints to the reader that a big incident in her past altered her and her family irrevocably. The incident is this: in the 1970s, Rosemary returned home from her grandparent’s house to find that her beloved sister, Fern, had vanished. Shortly after Fern’s disappearance, her older brother Lowell packed up his bags and disappeared without any explanation and in the present day, is a wanted fugitive. She is not on speaking terms with either of her parents; after Fern’s cataclysmic disappearance, her father became an alcoholic and her mother suffered a mental breakdown. Receiving no answers when Rosemary questions what has happened to Fern, she concludes that silence is a flawed solution to those who don’t want to deal with the truth.
Being around the same age, Rosemary and Fern were closer than most sisters and they grew up joined at the hip. Together, they learnt to walk, to talk, to play, to laugh and to live. Before Fern had even spoken, Rosemary knew exactly what Fern meant and wanted. But the one point Fowler withholds from the reader is that Fern is a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee brought in by Rosemary’s psychologist father to be brought up beside her and used as the scientific test subject for an experiment to see if chimps have the capacity to inherit human behaviours. Rosemary is aware that their milestones are compared and even realises that to an extent, it’s a competition.
The story deals with the grief that Rosemary feels over Fern and Lowell’s disappearance and the disintegration of her family. Having spent her childhood growing up with her “twin”, Rosemary is incomplete without Fern and her grief comes across the page vividly. But, deep down, Rosemary is also dealing with guilt that she may have had a part in Fern’s disappearance. Having suppressed her memories of Fern’s disappearance, the story is Rosemary’s attempt to understand this peculiar childhood ordeal amidst her distorted and muddled memories, ultimately deciding whether she’s ready to forgive herself.
By disclosing the vital information that Fern is a chimp, Fowler prevents the reader making any snap judgements and instead invites the reader into the Cooke family to get to know. The aftereffects of the experiment on Rosemary are fascinating. While living with humans subdued Fern’s natural chimp tendencies, Rosemary had also inherited Fern’s natural behaviours; something neither of her parents had accounted for. As a result, she is ostracised by her classmates and the nickname “Monkey Girl” follows her through her childhood as kids laugh at her strange body reactions. Rosemary desires nothing more to shake off this otherness at university and sits in silence while her classmates gossip over their abnormal families, in hope that her silence will assert her family’s normality.
There is historical basis for this story; scientists Winthrop and Luella Kellogg decided to raise a chimpanzee called Gua alongside their son to compare primate and human development. The experiment didn’t end well and Gua was separated after Donald began to mimic his sounds; Gua died shortly afterwards. With animal testing still a reality, this novel is important in asking why animal lives are valued less than humans, especially when they feel just as passionately.
Serious themes are explored and heart-breaking truths revealed. I’ve read reviews which mention the humorous nature of the novel and while there where funny moments, I didn’t think the novel is humour-filled overall. While the novel is not told chronologically, rather it begins near the middle, the story never feels stilted. More so, each revelation feels like a puzzle piece coming together to reveal the full picture. The novel tests the definition of what it means to be a family and challenges the perception of human relationships. It is a story about family and whether forgiveness is truly possible if we hurt the ones we love the most.