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“I wanted you to have an extraordinary life,” confesses Rosemary’s mother in Karen Joy Fowler’s wise, provocative and wildly endearing take on family love. Did no one warn Mrs Cooke to be careful what she wished for? Had she any inkling of the family cataclysm her innocent desire would engender, and the complex repercussions her daughter would suffer in its wake?
Rewind to the day back in 1970s Indiana, when narrator-heroine Rosemary is separated from her beloved “twin” sister, Fern, and sent, aged five, for a week’s visit to her grandparents. “I knew the winds of doom when they blew,” Rosemary recalls. She senses that she has committed a heinous crime, for which her punishment is expulsion from the bosom of the family. But no. On her return, it is the thrill-seeking Fern who has been dispatched – never to be seen again. There are no explanations.
Soon afterwards, Rosemary’s stormy teenage brother Lowell absconds, also without discussion, leaving her bereft again. When he commits a series of crimes in the name of animal rights and becomes a fugitive from the FBI, a second hole is blasted in the already shaken family. More silence follows and little motormouth Rosemary, recognising a double taboo when she sees one, packs away her enthusiastically learned vocabulary and becomes an almost silent child. In time, she will be left with only a baffling palimpsest of sibling memories, recounted through caustic, guilt-tinged flashbacks. So far, so normal-ish. But “weird on stilts” lies just over the horizon.
There’s no way of reviewing this novel without disclosing the shattered Cooke family’s not-so-secret secret, deftly held back until page 77: that Rosemary’s missing sister, Fern, was a chimpanzee. The girls’ imposed “twin‑sisterhood” was part of an animal-human behaviour experiment conducted for five years by their psychologist father, before being abruptly terminated.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves resonates with Rosemary’s grief for her missing alter ego and sister, and for the adored Lowell, who communicates with the family only through the occasional cryptic postcard. But it’s Rosemary’s problems as a young adult – informed by her “simian” past – that shape the narrative. Who and what is she?
“Most home-raised chimps, when asked to sort photographs into piles of chimps and humans, make only the one mistake of putting their own picture into the human pile. This is exactly what Fern did,” Rosemary recalls. “What seems not to have been anticipated was my own confusion.”
The nickname “Monkey-girl” dogs Rosemary’s school years, and her deep-rooted identity dysmorphia sets her apart from her fellow students at college, where she is keen to shake off “the uncanny valley response” that her off-kilter body language elicits in others. While room-mates swap horror stories about their tamely freakish families, Rosemary knows better than to join in: her own background is a room-silencer.
But she can’t act normal for long. Soon she has hurtled headlong into a dangerous friendship with manic wild-child Harlow, a drama student with Honorary Chimp and Fern Substitute written all over her in giant letters. Drunken capers with a purloined Madame Defarge puppet and a paranoid apartment janitor ensue. For what better way to defy the gravitational pull of psychic pain than to cavort madly beyond its stratosphere?
In lesser hands, such whirlwind antics might juxtapose oddly with the profound questions the novel raises about animal rights, sibling loyalty, parental subterfuge, self-delusion, guilt and the notion of ownership. But Fowler is neither kooky or didactic: her narrative flits adeptly between registers, mixing pleasure and pain with all the naughty chutzpah of a chimp twizzling a feather duster. And while one family’s breakdown, rooted in an act of injustice, forms the bedrock of this astonishing work, the novel’s real triumph is that the repercussions of the Cooke parents’ broken pact with their chimpanzee child extend, by association, to the family of man and its dysfunctional relationship with the entire zoosphere.
Many a novel has devoted itself to exploring variations of Larkin’s lament about what mums and dads do to their kids. But if any other book has done it as exhilaratingly as the achingly funny, deeply serious heart-breaker that is Fowler’s 10th novel, and made it ring true for the whole of mankind, I’ve yet to read it. This is a moral comedy to shout about from the treetops.
• Liz Jensen’s The Uninvited is published by Bloomsbury.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves review – ‘A provocative take on family love’ | Fiction