Why are so few book covers yellow? This looks gorgeous! Like a literary bumblebee. I have to confess, the only reason I picked this up was the cover – despite the advice parents give their children the world over. That and Waterstone’s promotions. But I’m really glad I did because it’s a powerful, haunting, human and compelling novel.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Peize in 2014, the novel revolves around three children. Two of whom are missing. All of whose share one story.
We enter the story in 1996 when our narrator, Rosemary Cooke, is at college. I was at University and socially awkward between 1992-6, so there were elements of Rosemary’s life which struck a chord! Although generally my experience lacked the drugs, arrests and ventriloquists’ dummies which Rosemary had to navigate.
We first meet Rosemary witnessing and accidentally becoming embroiled in a scene (as my mother would say) or a fracas (as a police officer might describe it) initiated by another student, Harlow Fielding. As a result, both are arrested. An unlikely friendship between the outwardly reserved Rosemary and overly dramatic Harlow.
This friendship, though, is not the story; nor is this incident the start of the story. Over the course of the novel, we hear the story of Rosemary’s childhood focussing on her aged five, dispatched to her grandparents house for a week.
Or rather the stories. We receive the consciously modified and edited version given to Harlow as a safe and practiced narration, crafted for effect. But the same story is retold with the edited sections removed and we learn that her sister, Fern, disappeared whilst Rosemary was away. We hear memories, possibly reliable and possibly not; recovered memories. In 1996, having done his own disappearing act, Lowell visits Rosemary and we hear new accounts of the same event from his point of view.
The structure of the story, starting in college but circling the events of fifteen years previously could have become tedious and dull, or confusing, with a lesser author or a less engaging narrator. Rosemary was delightful! Smart, damaged, insecure, funny, self-aware. A remarkable guide on the journey that the novel represents. The novel does explore these layers of memory, consciously or subconsciously shaped into different stories. And it does chime with my own experience and understanding of memory. Do I feel like I know the truth about Fern’s disappearance? No. Did I feel that the novel was strikingly experimental in style? Not really (compare Eleanor Catton’s novel The Rehearsal). Did I feel her use of language was lyrical and poetic? Again no (compare The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams).
Do I feel as if I’ve met a real person in Rosemary? Yes. What more could I ask for in a novel?
For me, at times, the novel did veer a little towards the didactic, the moral lesson of non-human animal rights. There were occasions when we were, effectively receiving science or philosophy lectures. Theories of Mind. Mirror Tests. The experiments of Winthrop Kellogg and Gua. The Animal Liberation Front.
I didn’t mind those moments for two reasons: they were delivered unerringly in Rosemary’s voice and entirely suited her character and history; and they were genuinely quite interesting studies of animal behaviours. And these scientific expositions were balanced with frequent literary allusion and references too including A Tale Of Two Cities (Ahhh! Madame Defarge!) and Thomas More’s Utopia. It really was a very literary novel.
And at no point did these expositions detract from the central grief at the heart of the novel and of Rosemary. Her grief at the double loss of her sister and brother.
I did want more Harlow, though. She exploded into the book. Several times. She broke boundaries. Seduced men carelessly. Stole. But she was engaging as hell! Oh well. Maybe any more time spent in her company would have made her tiresome.
I now have a choice. There is a huge ‘reveal’ perhaps 75 pages into the book. You may already be aware of it from other reviews. I think I’ll choose not to say what it is. But it may fundamentally change your response to the Cooke family. It may not. Enjoy reaching it!
2 thoughts on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Jay Fowler”
[…] We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler is a case where the narrator, Rosemary, is reliable in that she is in full possession of the facts about her family but deliberately chooses to withhold those facts until half way through, causing the reader to re-evaluate so much! It is hard to summarise or to review without giving too much away but it is at its heart the story of a family which falls apart when Rosemary’s sister is lost. […]
[…] We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler […]