Book review We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
“Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten. The new representation is called a screen memory. A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.”
Rosemary and her sister, Fern, are part of a psychological study conducted by their father. When Rosemary is five her sister Fern vanishes; a traumatic event that later leads to the break up of the family. First the mother becomes an emotional wreck, then a few years later Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, absconds from the family home and joins the Animal Liberation Front, an underground animal rights organisation, Before the event of the sister’s disappearance, Rosemary was a talking machine gun, people would tell her to start stories in the middle rather than at the beginning, just to cut them to a manageable length. Now at college, Rosemary only shares prepared stories with strangers, keeping her mouth shut to hide her past in an attempt to protect herself from the painful memories relating to these traumatic events from her childhood. But Rosemary can only move forward with her life, if she faces her past. People who have issues with spoilers, probably shouldn’t read further. Personally, I don’t mind – we all know that Romeo and Juliet both die at the end and yet we still enjoy the play when we see or read it. There is a difference between knowing and experiencing something for yourself.
“What would it be like to have been the child in that experiment?”
Rosemary carries her nickname ‘monkey-girl’ for a reason: her sister Fern happens to be a chimpanzee. The idea for the book came to Fowler whilst speaking to her daughter about the Kellog experiment; Winthrop Kellog famously conducted a study in which he tried to raise his infant son with a chimp (needless to say that this study and similar ones have never been successful). Fowler’s daughter suggested she (Fowler) write a book about the child in the study, which Fowler evidently thought was an excellent idea.
What makes the book a good summer read is not only the chimp-human relationship, but also the esprit in the voice of our narrator Rosemary. It captures the reader on the first few pages and carries them the whole way through the story. But don’t be fooled, the book deals with big issues: loss, identity, ethics and animal rights.
So what would be the consequences of growing up with a chimp? Rosemary, for example, mimics her simian sister, jumping on the desk of her father when wanting his attention. Not anticipated by the father, it is revealed that it is not just Fern who adapts human traits but also that the daughter imitates the actions of the ape. Fowler describes this process; ‘[…] the neutral system of a young brain develops partly by mirroring the brains around it.’ Which leads us to ask the question, if Rosemary adapts ape traits and she is still a human, are the traits in Fern not then human like? Furthermore, is it ever acceptable to treat another living being just as an experiment? And, if Fern comes to think that she is human, how can we ever cage her again?
Additionally, Fowler showcases the problems that come with our memory. At various points in the book, Fowler reminds the reader how flawed our memory is. Do we narrate stories so many times until they become our own memory? If I I remember an event in our family history but no one else can, does this mean the event never happened? There is a brilliant passage where Rosemary seems to rediscover a long lost memory: she believes that her father has impatiently run over a cat that wouldn’t cross the street. When she talks to her grandma about it, the old lady assures her grandchild that her father would never be capable of such a cruelty. The memory becomes Rosemary’s own ‘Schrödinger’s cat’: “To this day, I can feel the bump of the tire over the cat’s body. And to this day I am very clear in my mind that it never happened.” Can the reader trust such a narrator? What is a genuine true memory and what is just fable?
On a meta level the reader is in a similar position to Rosemary – the plot of We Are Completely Besides Ourselves is carefully woven together by using a combination of both fact and fiction. Throughout the book Fowler uses factual events to anchor her story in our world, making it plausible for the reader to believe that someone like Rosemary could exist. By doing so, the effect on the reader reflects Rosemary’s state; it becomes our role to distinguish between the fictional and factual elements of the book, thus we are thrown in a similar state of confusion as our heroine.
The word list
As a non-native speaker, I thought it would be interesting to see what words caught my attention. Be prepared, I might bring them up in the conversations to come…
- ithyphallic – (especially of a statue or other representation of a deity) having an erect penis.
- Latinates – words that entered the English language through a Romance language, borrowed directly from Latin.
- Catachresis – grammatical misuse or error or a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is being applied in a way that significantly departs from conventional (or traditional) usage.
- ebullient – cheerful and full of energy.
- limpid – completely clear and transparent.
- refulgent – shining very brightly.