‘I can think of barely a handful of books that have affected me as much as this one’ – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

kyfwaacboFor the first 77 pages, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves seems like a pretty conventional family drama. Extremely well written and involving, but conventional all the same. Then, in a single surprising sentence, everything you’ve known about this family is turned upside down. It’s one of those rare moments in literature where the shock might actually knock you backwards. Nothing is mentioned in the blurb, and unless you’ve come across spoilers already, it would be a shame to ruin this moment. I’ll try my best not to.

Even without this perfectly pitched twist, Fowler’s latest novel was promising greatness. Rosemary is the youngest child of three, and we learn very early that her two siblings have long been absent from the family home. Her sister Fern was taken from Rosemary’s life in mysterious circumstances, and her brother Lowell has chosen to live apart from his family for reasons that are not immediately clear.

We follow an unconventional path through Rosemary’s life, learning of her early childhood, her life at college, and the effects of her somewhat strange upbringing on her later years. Fowler chooses to begin in the middle, moving out to the beginning and end at opportune moments as we piece together the intriguing details of our protagonist’s life. This is a difficult way to tell a tale, and I have often seen similar attempts fall flat on their face. But in this case, it’s perfect. This is a novel by a psychologist’s daughter, and it has psychology at its heart. It looks at memory, socialisation, nature versus nurture, loss, grief, psychoanalysis, and more. And amazingly, it does all of this without ever damaging its devastating storytelling.

It is very difficult to review this book without spoiling it for future readers. With that in mind, I’m simply going to make a few statements about my reactions to it. Fern, although not the main character, is one of the most fascinatingly portrayed personalities I remember reading about. Each character in the novel is believable, sympathetic, and intriguing. Despite the true sadness that sits behind the words on every single page of the book, Fowler manages to write one of the most wryly amusing novels of the year. And if you want to see a grown man cry on his own in bed at night, give him the last forty pages of this book.

Any Cop?: I can think of barely a handful of books that have affected me as much as this one. Read it. Read it now.

 

Fran Slater

 

 


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