You can’t choose your family, but they can make choices for you. Huge, life-altering choices.
As a child, Rosemary never stopped talking, so why, now she’s a young woman at college, doesn’t she talk very much at all?
She used to have a sister, Fern, the same age as her, and a brother, Lowell. She loved both fiercely but they have vanished from her life, for reasons she can’t face, and no-one could guess.
She may be quiet in person but on paper she’s still as exuberant as she was in childhood. So here is Rosemary’s story; utterly captivating, it’s funny, clever and swirls with ideas that will come back to bite you.
Karen Joy Fowler’s latest, just out from Serpent’s Tail in the UK, is another entry into her incredible literary bibliography; although shelved in the SFF section of certain bookshops, it tends to also inhabit their General/Literary Fiction sections, dancing gently across those borders as it does. Infused with a certain fantastical sensibility, the novel is realist in a tradition also inhabited by the likes of Jeanette Winterson; playing with unreliable narrators, achronological narrative and withheld information, Fowler’s novel is both demanding and wonderfully readable.
Rosemary, our narrator, has one of the more unique voices in first-person narrative that I have seen; combining a wilful playing with reader expectation with a knowing wink at various literary conventions, she both starts at the end and in the middle – the older Rosemary described the events of her youth as a prelude to discussing the events of her childhood. This layering is laid out at the start and returned to at the end of the novel, though frequent asides to the reader remind us of the way in which the whole novel is a dialogue with the audience, engaging us in its thought-processes and speculations. These asides include discussions of psychology, of narrative, and simply achronological notes brought up in a very natural and effective way to flesh out the story, or remind us of the unreliability of the narrator – Rosemary frequently admits her own unreliability, paradoxically increasing our trust in her.
The plot of the novel is very simple, if laid out chronologically, though a summary would spoil the key revelation that comes about a quarter of the way in; but the story is both a coming-of-age tale and a question of what it means to be human, without offering any answers – only layering on extra information, time and again, provoking the reader with brutal honesty (Fowler includes some very disturbing imagery drawn from animal testing and from animal psychology) and with simple statements that the reader does not expect. We Are All… provokes in the best possible way, as we get the linked tales of Rosemary’s college life and acquaintance with the madcap Harlow (reminiscent in many ways of Harley of DC Comics fame) in 1996, her childhood with Lowell and Fern in the 1980s, and Lowell’s life apart from his family, before drawing to a close with a return to the narrative present of 2012.
The whole story is told sensitively and populated by impressively rounded characters; from Harlow, who escapes being a manic pixie dream girl by not actually teaching Rosemary anything, to Reg, her boyfriend, who appears only briefly but has depths upon depths we encounter only vaguely but can see the existence of, Fowler’s novel is populated by a cast of people who live, love, breathe and exist independently of Rosemary, something we can see each time they cross our narrator’s path and are subtly different, or in a subtly different state, than the last time. These changes give the novel a stunning degree of power, and I had to more than once remind me that the autobiographical conceit was only a conceit of the novel, not its true form.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is one of those novels that would be described as transcending genre boundaries if it was a genre novel, but instead transcends the idea of literary-versus-genre to become a universal; Fowler’s writing and her characterisation serve her incredibly well here, in this beautiful novel of ideas. Read it and be enriched.
DoI: Although purchased in a bookshop, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is published by Serpent’s Tail.