: “You learn as much from failure as from success, Dad always says. Though no one admires you for it”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the eighth novel by prize-winning American author, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke’s sister Fern disappeared from her life when she was just five years old. When she was nearly twelve, her brother Lowell left. The absence of her two beloved siblings was never discussed at home.
From the perspective of a kindergarten teacher in her late thirties, Rosie tells the story of her unusual upbringing. She starts in the middle, during her time at UC Davis, because she had been told, often enough, by her psychologist father: “Skip the beginning; start in the middle”.
By this time, the once loquacious girl was almost taciturn. Throughout her childhood, members of her family advised “If you have three things to say, just tell the most important one”. Even more effective at reducing her chat was her brother’s later remonstration “If only you had, just for once, kept your goddamn mouth shut!” She still “thought as much as ever… Without the release of talking, these thoughts crowded my brain. The inside of my head turned clamorous and outlandish, like the Mos Eisley spaceport bar in Star Wars”
In the telling of the how and why her siblings are absent, Rosie delves into psychology experiments and primates and the unreliability of memories. And while a psychologist practicing on his family is probably de rigeur, today’s ethics committees would surely have vetoed what took place during Rosie’s childhood.
While the theme of love, of loss, and cruelty gives the story an undercurrent of sadness, Fowler includes plenty of humour, some of it quite black. She gives the reader a collection of quirky characters; her descriptions of faculty life in an Indiana college town in the late seventies and a Californian University town in the mid-nineties has a very genuine feel, no doubt as they draw on her own life experiences. Lost luggage, a French Revolution puppet and animal liberationists all feature. A clever, moving and thought-provoking read. 4.5 stars