“In the phrase ‘ human being,’ the word ‘being’ is much more important than the word ‘human.’”
I’d been reading a lot of four star books lately – books that are a great read, but they don’t strike that chord with me, compelling me to read through the night or remember them in a few months or years time. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves did both of these things.
In this book, Karen Joy Fowler took a subject matter I didn’t even know I was interested in, and had me riveted by it. A complex sociological and political issue is weaved in amongst family drama with an engaging, witty narrative, resulting in a story which is humorous, emotional and intelligent.
It’s hard to review this book without revealing a huge spoiler. But I’m going to try – I went into this novel not knowing the twist, and it worked best for me this way. To be honest, I’m ashamed to say that if I had known the twist before reading the book I may not have even bothered, as it’s not a storyline which would usually appeal to me. That’s why I recommend that you just read it!
The story is told by Rosemary. It is her story, but it’s about her brother, Lowell, her sister, Fern and her parents too. It’s the story of how she ended up living as an only child, with her brother and sister nowhere to be seen, and how the family gradually begins to piece themselves together again as the years go by. But Rosemary starts her story right in the middle. She’s 22, in University, and she’s just about to get arrested for destruction of property, causing a public nuisance and assaulting a police officer.
This isn’t where her story really starts though, and her arrest fades to insignificance as she begins to peel back the layers of her life which she has long kept hidden. As she is narrating her story many years later, she admits that her memories may have become worn and warped over the years, saying: “The happening and telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories, simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album. Eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.” But it doesn’t matter in this story if every word is true. This story goes much deeper than that.
Rosemary tells the reader about when she was sent away to her grandparents at five years old, and came back to find her twin sister gone. She tells about how, a few years later, her brother also walked out. Her narrative is down-to-earth and downright readable; simultaneously humorous and harrowing, she relays her childhood growing up with a psychiatrist father and a very unusual sister with a frank, analytical manner which I enjoyed.
The subject matter examined is incredibly well-researched, and you’d be hard pushed to come out of this book without learning something new and starting to look at things in a different light. At its core, this book examines what it means to be human, both in a literal sense – the behavioural psychology of humans and how this compares to other species – but also in a way which is less tangible. Karen Joy Fowler charts almost an entire lifetime in Rosemary’s story, from a toddler to middle age, and in that she experiences the mixture of loss, love, and hope that makes up life.