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.
1969 was the year Neil Armstrong took his one small step and made the possibility of humans visiting other celestial bodies a reality. It was also the year of publication for an intriguing novel which imagines what could happen if space travel to other inhabited planets was common. How would that world differ from our own? Would it welcome us? And what would it do to the inhabitants of the other planet to learn that they weren’t alone?
Being banned or otherwise surrounded by controversy is a double-edged fate for a book. Of course, no writer wants to be censored – and it can lead, as Salman Rushdie has lamented in the case of The Satanic Verses, to a fine novel being judged and remembered more for the furore surrounding it than for its actual writing. But banned books tend to be big and controversial, generating lots of discussion – and the saying ‘all publicity is good publicity’ can be particularly true when a politically motivated ban makes a book more culturally prominent than it would be on literary merit alone.
Such is the case of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a book which was in the bizarre position of being put on trial for obscenity in 1928 and banned for twenty-one years simply for depicting lesbian characters – or as Sir Archibald Bodkin, the Director of Public Prosecutions, put it at the time “those unfortunate women (as I deem them) who have proclivities towards lesbianism, or those wicked women (as I deem them) who voluntarily indulge in these practices”. In an age when gay sex between men was outright illegal and lesbianism was dubiously legal and barely talked about, The Well of Loneliness had an important role to play in speaking up about lesbians’ forcibly suppressed and often painful experiences.
I was excited to come across a copy of the book in my local library, since it’s a landmark in women’s literature and censored literature, both areas I’m really interested in. But when I read it, I found all that fuss was simply about a terribly written and often actively nasty book. While I wanted to review The Well of Loneliness for this blog, it wouldn’t be fair since I couldn’t read it to the end (and I’m the sort who views it as a moral failing to leave a book unfinished and can nearly always plough through to the end – after all, even a forced march can offer some good sightseeing). So here’s my explanation of why I couldn’t finish reading The Well of Loneliness. Bear in mind that this doesn’t include the last eighty pages, which for all I know could be a masterpiece planted in the wrong book.