We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

On the long list for the Man Booker 2014, We are all completely beside ourselves is a book that is hard to talk about without ruining some of its own device. The novel is narrated by Rosemary who is struggling to tell her own story by telling the story of her family who involve her, from the earliest months of her life, in a research project into the differences between ourselves and our closest animal relatives. The results of this project and its multiple complications change all of their lives irrevocably.

Rosemary used to be a talker and her father’s advice to tell stories from the middle, to save himself from having to listen for too long, is a useful directive through which the narrative can develop without drawing attention to the natures of all of the characters involved. We are meant to be entering the story with as little bias as possible, allowing us to unravel the familiar narrative of family dysfunction – parents whose seemingly intentionally damaging decisions take children years to comprehend, often when it is too late to remake their lives in the light of new discovery – to make an unusual story ordinary. In some ways the narrative succeeds too well at this. I wanted to be forced to further question my views on animal intelligence. Then again I might not be the person at whom the narrative may be aimed, I already believe humans are far too quick to judge other animals on human terms rather than their own.

Whilst I devoured We are all completely beside ourselves, embracing its storyline with increasing interest, finding the characters believable and compelling, in the end the novel didn’t go far enough for me. I wanted to be pushed further into the non-human animal mind. I wanted to further explore that alternative perspective. Perhaps, again that’s the point, but as I wasn’t engaged enough on an emotional level either, I didn’t feel as if I’d undergone Rosemary’s connection to the non-human animal mind and so for me the book is a good book, a page-turning book, but not a book I expect to see on the short list for the Man Booker. However, I’d be happy to hear from those who think the failing to engage was my own…

Next week I’m reading J by Howard Jacobson followed by The Cave by Jose Saramago. Keep the comments and suggestions coming.

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