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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

What It Means To Be Human

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is one of those books it is impossible to talk about properly without discussing the premise. Unfortunately, to learn the premise in advance is to lose the element of surprise on which much of the book's initial force depends. So be warned, this review contains spoilers.

 

In an experiment conducted by her father, a behavioural psychologist employed by an American university, the central character, Rosemary, was raised alongside Fern, a chimpanzee whom she regarded as her sister. It was a relationship that was abruptly terminated when Rosemary was eight and Fern was suddenly and inexplicably removed from the family.

 

The effects of Fern's inclusion and subsequent exclusion on Rosemary, her brother Lowell and their mother are deeply traumatic. The experiment, supposedly all about the chimpanzee, becomes, instead an overwhelming tragedy for the family whose dysfunctionality forms the basis of plot.

 

Narrated in the voice of an undergraduate protecting herself from her own memories with a barrier of ironic detachment, the tone is bitterly witty. When Rosemary finally meets up with Lowell, who has been missing for year and is wanted by the FBI, only to discover that rather than answering all her questions, he is more interested in making out with her best friend, she observes resignedly that 'pheromones are the earth's primordial idiom'.

 

But there's much more to Karen Joy's writing than a clever turn of phrase. Deeply moving, often harrowing, and with a telling eye for detail, this is a novel that explores what it truly means to be human