“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler – innovative, easy to read, challenging book with an intellectual and emotional punch.

we are allThis is a remarkable, original, ambitious book, that succeeds in being readable, truthful (mostly) and intellectually challenging without once sounding pretentious or too clever for its own good.

It is not a conventional novel in its approach to narrative.

It starts in the middle or, at least, it claims to, although, by the end, even the narrator is no longer sure this is true.

This non-linear novel moves backwards and forwards in time not so much to develop the narrative  but to trace the source of an idea, the emergence of a memory, the evolution of a state of mind, the  scabbing over and unpicking of scars left by real or imagined guilt.

Rosemary, the narrator, is both disarmingly honest and regularly unreliable. She lies by omission, for our own good, or because she can’t face telling the truth, or because someone cannot bear to hear the truth. She tells the truth and nothing but the truth but is not entirely sure that the whole truth is either desirable or possible. Rosemary is not always the same Rosemary. Sometimes she is the Rosemary in the middle, remembering Rosemary at the beginning. Sometimes she is Rosemary at the end remembering Rosemary in the middle. Sometimes Rosemary is lost, even to herself. Sometimes Rosemary is hiding, from others, from her memories, from what she might have done and from what she did not do. And yet Rosemary is consistently and uncompromisingly herself.

Now this may make it sound like “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is one of those “It must be art because it’s boring me to death and I only understand part of it” Booker Prize Listed novels. It isn’t. It is way too subtle for that. This as an easy to read book that made me laugh and cry and want to turn the page but which also set up whispers in my head, like subliminal implants, if subliminal implants worked, that made me review my understanding of concepts and ethic and consider why the novel is constructed the way it is.

This is a big themes book: love, guilt, family, humanity are all front and centre. Behind them, like a deliberately discordant soundtrack designed to create foreboding, are challenges on: the nature of memory “like photographs that eventually replace the moment they were meant to capture”; the tension between narrative and truth; the immutability (or not) of character; and the mind-bending, soul-shaping gravitational pull of the love between two sisters.

I’m not going to share anything about the plot. I picked “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” up because I’d enjoyed Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club” a decade or so ago and I liked the first few paragraphs of the prologue. There is a big reveal in the book, that doesn’t occur until Part 2. There’s a reason why it’s there. Personally, I’m not convinced that the reason is a good reason but I’ll leave it as the author’s call.

The downside of the big reveal is that, for me, it made Part 1 less compelling. The Rosemary we see in Part 1 is hard to engage with. Yes, she was a vulnerable child once, deserving of sympathy and of love, but at the middle of story, which here is the beginning, she is in her twenties and at once passive and unhappy. Part 1 was like listening to a (very long) TED Talk or an article on “Fresh Air” in PBS radio, it was charming and witty and sometimes surprising but it didn’t really grab me.

By the end of Part 1, about the same time as, but not solely attributable to, the big reveal, the veneer of wit and charms begins to rub away and we see something much less appealing and much more compelling, underneath.

I was already familiar with much of the content covered here on the study of animal behaviour and intelligence and with the views and actions of the ALF but Fowler made me see it all with fresh eyes. She made it personal and important and more than a little shameful.

“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is a book I know I will read again and get even more from. Even on the first read, I was marvelling at how Fowler changed my view of events and people and relationships time and again. This wasn’t cheating. It was more like using time-lapsed photography to show the changes that normally happen too slowly for us to register.

If you enjoyed “The Jane Austen Book Club” then you will still find the wit and the eye for character in “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” but you will also see that Fowler has used the intervening decade to become a true master of her craft.

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