Reading the Man Booker Prize 2014: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This was my unloved sixth of the shortlist, so I’m reviewing it last. There’s not much to be said other than it wasn’t for me, and I didn’t like it. You might, though. Who knows.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

For those of us who read book reviews (ha!), there was probably no way of avoiding the spoilers for the big twist circa 80 pages in. And since it’s such an important aspect of the book, there can be no serious  review without giving the big secret away, so be warned.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is narrated by Rosemary, who is a 20-something student at the beginning of the book. The plot then takes us back to Rosemary’s childhood, and later reveals her current life as a middle-aged teacher. Fairly isolated at university, and distanced from her family, Rosemary recounts her childhood and the events that changed her whole family. Growing up with an older brother and a sister, she remembers a happy, carefree first few years of her life. When, aged five, she is sent to spend time with her grandparents, she senses that big changes lie ahead. Returning to see that the family has moved house, she is faced with a brother who suddenly seems to hate her, and her sister is gone altogether. Her mother has a nervous breakdown, and nobody tells Rosemary anything.

At this point, a big revelation is due, and it comes when Rosemary matter-of-factly lets us know that her sister is a chimpanzee.

It was also the point at which I gave up on the novel. Fowler’s style had prepared me for an unusual story told in an unusual way, but the big plot twist merely confirmed my suspicions that the book would be unusual only in terms of aspiration. The narrative style was over-the-top erratic, and Rosemary never seemed quite as likeably quirky as she was clearly meant to be. I was simply not interested in her. The introduction of an unexpected cross-species relationship immediately sent the book over the edge for me. I’m not an animal person. I don’t want to read a book that describes people as “human primates” and then wants to be nominated for a big literary prize for daring to challenge everyone’s perceptions. They dress the chimpanzee in diapers and dresses, and the older brother becomes a militant animal activist. What’s new?

There are interesting points in the book. Rosemary criticises her father for focusing on how the primate is influenced by human lifestyles while seemingly ignoring how his human daughter picks up primate characteristics and is forever teased by classmates as a “monkey girl.” Her struggles to keep these characteristics in check cleverly surface in the novel. There’s the whole subject of animal activism, which I don’t want to belittle at all. But as a novel, it doesn’t quite work. There are some badly underdeveloped characters in there, and even the interesting bits are never discussed in detail. The aspect of how Rosemary is ultimately fooled by her own misremembered and repressed memories could have played a much bigger role in order to make this a truly unusual novel, rather than a story of strange characters. It’s a weirdly flat novel, with plotlines and characters that serve no purpose other than to introduce variety into what is ultimately a family tragedy. And a weird one at that.

I’d love to find out what made the Booker jury include We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the shortlist. I really don’t see any merit in it. But reviews are subjective, and wouldn’t the world be a sad place if there was no difference in taste and opinion? If you’ve read the novel, let me know what you thought!

 

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Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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