Saturday, 4 April 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: “Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a greater talker as a child,” Rose begins. “When you think of two things to say, pick your favourite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behaviour, and the rule was later modified to one in three.”

Rose is an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There was something unique about Rose's sister, Fern, and for the first five years of their lives, the two were constantly tested and observed by their psychologist father and a large cohort of grad students.

Now at college, Rose is no longer a talker but a loner. We first encounter her on the day she meets Harlow, storming into the student cafeteria and tearing up a storm to break up with her boyfriend. The way that Rose reacts to Harlow’s behaviour is, with hindsight, highly significant.

This is a tricky book to review. 77 pages in, the narrator throws a curve ball at you. You may guess what that curve ball is before you get there, but it won’t be me that told you. You’ll have to work it out for yourself.

For those first 77 pages, it’s easy to imagine this is just another story about a dysfunctional American middle-class family. From p77 onwards, it unfolds into something more complex, and more challenging to our view of ourselves as humans and custodians of the planet.

Like many stories with an unreliable narrator, it unfolds in a non-linear way. Rose revisits her past, and in particular the crucial point when Fern disappears from her life, at least twice, her perspective altering each time.

Woven through the story are questions about the ethics of scientific experimentation, guilt, responsibility, and the fallible nature of memory. It is not, as novels with scientists at the centre often are, unsympathetic to science. But neither does it let scientists off the hook.

If all this makes it sound like science fiction, it’s not. It’s a leap of imagination, but grounded squarely in 20th and 21st Century reality. It’s poignant, funny, and may leave you feeling a little uncomfortable.

You’ll enjoy this if you love: Ann Tyler, Carol Shields

Avoid if you dislike: a challenge to your view of yourself as human

Perfect Accompaniment: Banana cream pie, eaten in a diner in the middle of night with rain streaming down the windows

Genre: Lit fic

Available from Amazon

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