We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler


My brother and sister have led extraordinary lives, but I wasn’t there, and I can’t tell you that part. I’ve stuck here to the part I can tell, the part that’s mine, and still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been. Three children, one story. The only reason I’m the one telling it is that I’m the one not currently in a cage.

WeAreAll_UKEditionI have, on the odd occasion, been accused of being all head and no heart. To strike a balance between the two, particularly as a writer, particularly as a writer trained as a journalist, is incredibly difficult. This novel, whip sharp, political and really, really unexpected, wrestles with that phenomenon in the most graceful way.

I have been putting this review off because it’s a really difficult to talk about without spoilers. It starts off as a story about a regular old family, except there are two people inexplicably absent, one sister and one brother. Our narrator Rosemary tells us the absent family members are just not spoken about, as if that would erase the pain of their absence, but it doesn’t. However, even as she is arrested and has to call her parents to be bailed out, goes home for Thanksgiving and is handed her mothers journals, there is something she’s not telling you and she doesn’t tell you until page 77. It will affect your enjoyment of the story so I’m not going to tell you either. It’s not so much a twist in the tale as a feat of remarkable misdirection. Fowler is a magician. She fools the reader with a sleight of hand that is entirely impenetrable until she makes her reveal.

But then the novel ploughs on. The story has taken an unexpected path and, while it might not be the book you thought you were reading, the premise is interesting enough, and you’re far enough in by this point, that you’re willing to go along for the ride. However, while I realise other critics have given this one rave reviews, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I’d hoped. It had me hook, line and sinker until about two thirds through and then it developed some pacing issues that tested my patience.  There was a tendency to stray too far into scientific study as opposed to story telling and while Fowler’s characters are real and the concepts accessible, it introduced a stop/start feeling to the whole thing. Chapters turn from time to time to talk about one study or other, broadening the narrative into an activist arc, but stopping the flow of the story. I think Fowler could have made her point with slightly less of that interference and it would have continued to feel like subtle suggestion rather than a debate. Regardless, it is extremely clever but it succeeds because it is more heartfelt than political, though it is both. It really gave me a great deal to think about, which I imagine was Fowler’s intent, but it was done with a paint brush rather than a protest march.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler: Four stars.

Read it if: you’re willing to go on a mystery adventure.

 

About leatherboundpounds

I am a Perth writer who reads plenty and thinks too much. Here are my adventures in literature, one page at a time. View all posts by leatherboundpounds

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