Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is wonderful to read, but very hard to review. The narrator, Rosemary – yes, the name was what originally attracted me to the book, and I’m glad it did – a college student in 1990s California, playfully twists her narrative so readers are never standing on firm ground. She’ll describe a scene then tell us that she omitted a crucial detail, or admit to withholding information. “Language is also the order of words,” her psychologist father says, and the non-linear order in which she arranges the events of her story is as crucial as the events themselves.
In a rare moment of apparent directness near the novel’s beginning, she tells the reader “ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.” The mix of witty cynicism and quiet sadness in Rosemary’s narrative voice, which lovers of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars will appreciate, makes the tricksy narrative beguiling rather than frustrating. However, it conceals the crucial information about the nature of her family and why her siblings disappeared, whose eventual uncovering changes the book so fundamentally that it makes in-depth discussion of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves hard to do without spoilers. But I will avoid revealing the delightfully unexpected twist, to allow readers to experience it as a complete surprise.
Using multiple time-frames to slowly uncover a family’s secrets is a popular narrative in books from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. It has a strong and obvious appeal – families are, for good or bad, fundamental to most people’s development and emotional identities, and the close bonds between parents, children and siblings offer endless potential for conflict and mistakes, creating situations which are painful to live, but fascinating to read or write about. As Rosemary puts it, “Antagonism in my family comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability. I believe the same can be said of many families.” The hidden resentments behind familial love define the ‘family secrets’ genre, but it relies on such well-worn tropes – adultery, abuse, long-lost children – that it’s become dangerously easy for an experienced reader to guess a book’s secret before it’s revealed. The twist in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, however, is unique. What’s marvellous about it is that, while it forces you to re-interpret all the previous events in the novel and changes the tone of everything that comes after, at the same time, it doesn’t change anything at all. The twist could be schlocky in the hands of a less skilful author, but Fowler matter-of-factly treats it as a means of reinforcing what she always intended We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to be – a seemingly small novel with big depths.
Novels with a sense of humour and an emphasis on the personal are often ignored by the gatekeepers of the literary canon, especially those whose authors happen to be female, but Fowler’s light tone is like a newly cleaned window, through which readers can see to examine the genuinely original and important questions she raises about family, science, language, memory and the very nature of humanity. With this book, she became one of the newly eligible American writers shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. The changes to the prize’s criteria have been criticised, but shortlisting We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves means they’re working as they should, by honouring the most outstanding new writing the world over.
Hopefully I’ve tantalised you enough about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ twist to make you want to read it, but it offers many pleasures beyond that one coup of plotting. The writing is elegantly, Lorrie Moore-esque quirky – horrified witnesses to a fight in a cafeteria sit “frozen – forks halfway to our mouths, spoons dipped in our soups, the way people were found after the eruption of Vesuvius.” The precise language lends itself to penetratingly accurate summaries of complex emotional states, such as Rosemary’s description of her loneliness as a new student struggling to hide her secrets and fit in: “now that I’d achieved it, normal suddenly didn’t sound so desirable. Weird was the new normal and, of course, I hadn’t gotten the memo… Maybe sedulously making sure that no one really knew me was an impediment to friendship.” The wonder of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not just in its imaginative flights of fancy, but in the way Fowler makes such common emotional struggles seem freshly painful.