Review: ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’

Of all the books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, the synopsis for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler) was the one that intrigued me the most (followed by Orfeo by Richard Powers and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake). Told from the perspective of Rosemary Cooke, a woman whose entire childhood formed the basis of a psychological experiment run by her father, the novel follows her life after the disappearance of her sister Fern. True to my initial impression, the book is quite unlike any that I’ve read in a while; this is no standard coming-of-age story or boy-meets-girl romance. Infused with a subtle humour throughout, Beside Ourselves navigates family relationships, feminist issues, and animal rights abuses with equal candour. I doubt it is a novel that will make anyone rethink how they conduct themselves (except perhaps to pay more attention to animal rights campaigning), but as a quirky, entertaining read it fares extraordinarily well.

The first thing to say about this novel is that it has one of the best plot twists I’ve come across. Nothing prepares you for it, and the manner in which Fowler makes you believe in this sudden game-changer is formidable. However, the twist comes about a third of the way through the book, and after the shock of this reveal the novel plays out somewhat predictably under the new circumstances. Maybe one surprise is enough for a novel of only 308 pages, but I felt that afterwards there were moments where the fruits of Fowler’s research were laid out a little too obviously and it lost its critical edge.

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Nonetheless, Rosemary remained a perfectly imagined and executed protagonist throughout. In parts she is quite dislikeable, eaten up with jealousy from sibling rivalries, but this only added to my belief in her as a character. Everyone has their flaws, and Fowler is unafraid to expose them without apology. Rosemary’s parents are tainted by ambition; her mother wishes her to ‘have an extraordinary life’, seemingly without regard to whether being extraordinary has been of benefit or detriment to her wellbeing. Rosemary’s friend Harlow has a veneer of loveable exhibitionist rogue that hides deeper insecurities, drawing people into orbit around her self-absorbed destructiveness. Even the more minor characters in the novel, such as Harlow’s boyfriend Reg, are afforded a nuance of personality that makes the book’s world irresistibly three-dimensional. It is this attention to detail that is the novel’s greatest strength; every one of Fowler’s characters is damaged, optimistic, and completely captivating.

Sophie Hannah has described Beside Ourselves as the ‘Best novel of the decade’ – high praise indeed. Is it the best book of the decade? In my opinion, no – amongst numerous others I preferred both Nemesis (Philip Roth) and Memories of my Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), although these are very obviously different kinds of book. Having said that, I really did enjoy this novel from start to finish – I finished it in a single train journey (which says both that I enjoyed it enough to devour in a single sitting, and that it didn’t make me stop and think too hard). It’s a brilliant exploration of family values – Fowler pushing the boundaries of family life to its limits shows that every child’s upbringing is a psychological experiment in some fashion, every parent attempting to mould their child into a desired image. It’s a fun holiday read, and I look forward to what the rest of this year’s Man Booker longlist has to offer.

Leah Broad

You can read an excerpt from ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ on Fowler’s website. It is available from most bookstores, RRP £7.99.

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