My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a nominee for both the Nebula Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. I can’t remember now where I read it, but this is the first time the same novel has been nominated for both prestigious awards. I got curious (the Nebula Awards focuses on science fiction and fantasy, while I have always assumed the PEN/Faulkner focuses on realist literary work, though I can see that I am mistaken) and immediately went on Amazon to read the sample. You should go ahead and do that. The writing is extraordinary. Two pages in and I was hooked. Chapter 1 shows a couple breaking up and the girl going berserk in a cafeteria. What’s not to like?
The novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, and she starts her story, as she is wont to do, in the middle. It is 1996, she is 22 years old, and she has not seen her brother Lowell in a decade. Her sister Fern has been missing for seventeen years.
I am going to stop here just to say that this is an incredible book, very well-written, heartbreaking, with an important message to tell, and that you should stop reading this post (and the book’s reviews, and the summaries) and read the book instead.
However, if you have read it, or if you don’t mind spoilers, I’ll see you after the cut.
Fowler implicates the reader in the narrative. Will we feel different – maybe relieved? – if we find out that Fern is not a human being? And if so, what does that say about us? Fern is a chimpanzee that Rosemary’s parents brought into their home and raised as Rosemary’s twin sister for a study. Suddenly the story takes on a different veneer. We’re not just dealing with a broken home here. We’re dealing with animal rights, and memory, and what it means to be human.
It doesn’t devolve into propaganda, even when Rosemary starts quoting study after study. Let’s admit it, we all hate propaganda in fiction. It’s lazy. But Fowler is not lazy, and Rosemary is a lovely narrator, funny and endearing. She knows how hard it is, how difficult it is, to talk about science and morality and what is right. At some point she mentions an infant macaque whose eyes were sewn shut “the day he was born, to test a sonic equipment designed for blind babies”. “I didn’t want a world in which I had to choose between blind human babies and tortured monkey ones,” she says, and I am struck by the honesty of that statement. It’s true. Nobody does, and yet here we all are.