Twist in the tail: a chimpanzee opens Christmas presents in a French zoo. Photo: Getty
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Utterly beguiling: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

A disturbingly funny account of sibling loss. But not the usual kind of sibling. 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
Serpent's Tail, 336pp, £12.99

This is the first time I have reviewed a novel about which it is almost impossible to say anything without destroying the moment of jolting astonishment that I experienced on first reading it. That makes it sound as though the value of Karen Joy Fowler’s seventh novel is predicated on its big reveal, or that it is some kind of superior thriller. It is hard to imagine a less apt description of her intricate, emotionally resonant and disturbingly funny account of sibling loss. Yet there is a devastatingly calibrated shift of perception about a quarter of the way into the text. If you don’t want to know what it is, don’t read on (but do read the novel, whose combination of quirkiness and passionate seriousness is utterly beguiling).

“Those who know me now,” remarks Fowler’s heroine, Rosemary Cooke, “will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child.” At bedtimes, when her father came to say goodnight, she would try desperately to detain him with narrative. “I have something to say,” she would tell him. “Start in the middle, then,” he would answer. Decades later, that is exactly what she does.

Her story begins in 1996: “Ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, 17 since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence . . .” Cooke is 22, in her fifth year as a student at the University of California, Davis, a college that she has chosen for a particular reason.

She is eating in the university cafeteria one day when an epic row breaks out at the next table. The campus police are called and buffoonishly arrest not just the instigator of the fracas, Harlow Fielding (she is, inevitably, a drama student), but Rosemary as well.

Sprung from jail by her father, Rosemary flies home for the Thanksgiving holiday. It is a magnificently uneasy occasion. As she is about to return to college her mother makes an unexpected gesture: she wants Rosemary to have her old journals. Rosemary is dismayed: “What’s the point of never talking about the past if you wrote it all down and you know where those pages are?”

But the past is not so easily ignored. Rosemary returns to find Harlow comfortably installed in her room, having been thrown out by her boyfriend. Her fearless nosiness knows no bounds and in no time she is drawing Rosemary out about her eccentric childhood and her missing twin. On starting at college, Rosemary “made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern . . .” Yet Harlow’s ruthless interrogation brings her to the point “where I don’t see how to go further forward without going back” – all the way back to the day when, aged five, she was sent to stay with her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone and her family irreparably fractured.

What we haven’t been told until now is that Fern, “my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half”, was a chimpanzee. She and Rosemary were the subjects of an ingenious psychological experiment. “We were not the only household during this period attempting to raise a baby chimpanzee as if she were a human child,” Rosemary notes drily. “The aisles of the supermarkets in Norman, Oklahoma, where Dr William Lemmon was prescribing chimps liberally to his grad students and patients, were full of such families.”

In an afterword, Fowler explains that she, like Rosemary, was the daughter of a psychologist who worked with animals (but with rats, rather than apes, and in the lab, rather than at home). Her father, she writes, “taught me to see myself as one animal among many”, and this vision haunts Rosemary’s narrative, with its painfully worked-out revelations of how Fern came to disappear.

Fowler is best known for her novel The Jane Austen Book Club (2004) but she is also an award-winning writer of fantasy and science fiction. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves combines a precise Austenian sensitivity to emotional nuance with the discomforted perception of a narrator who feels herself an alien – for the effect on Rosemary of spending her first five years with Fern is that she sees the world at least partly from the point of view of an ape.

Rosemary’s melancholy and her sense of her own lingering otherness are balanced with an equally deep-rooted comic sensibility. There is no happy ending but reconciliation, of a kind, in which storytelling – the one thing that Rosemary could do and Fern couldn’t – becomes a form of flawed atonement in a narrative whose view of the human (and animal) condition has an unforgettable, tender ferocity.

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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The worst Oscar-winning films of all time

How hated movies have grabbed their space in the spotlight. 

Whilst the biggest surprise at last night’s Oscars was undoubtedly the part where they weren’t sure who’d actually won Best Picture, Suicide Squad also raised a few eyebrows. The critically-panned superantihero non-classic managed to take home an Academy Award, albeit in the category of Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Which raises the question: is Suicide Squad the worst film to have ever won an Oscar?

Obviously, the quality of a film is an ultimately subjective measure. Suicide Squad is someone’s favourite movie; every film is someone’s favourite movie, except for Sex Lives of the Potato Men. But if we want to get an "objective" view, one was is to look at a measure of the critical consensus, like Tomatometer on the website Rotten Tomatoes, which counts the percentage of good and bad reviews a film has received from critics.

Here, Suicide Squad ranks at a lowly 26 per cent (with such glowing lines as the Wall Street Journal’s “an all-out attack on the whole idea of entertainment”), which is one of the lowest scores an Academy Award-winning movie has ever received. But not the lowest.

Michael Bay’s historically dubious epic Pearl Harbor, which managed a win for Best Sound Editing, has a rating of just 25 per cent. As well as its Oscar, Pearl Harbor won Worst Picture at "anti-Oscars" The Razzies, the first film to do so that also had one of the real awards.

This kind of "technical" award is a good route to unlikely Oscar glory. Middling John Lithgow-meets-Bigfoot comedy Harry and the Hendersons isn’t remembered as an award-winner, but it took home the gold for Harry's makeup job. It can sometimes be overlooked that most films are a massive team effort, and there's something heartwarming about the fact people can get still be rewarded for being very good at their job, even if that job is working on a mediocre-to-terrible movie.

Still, if no-one working on the actual film does their job right, you can always get someone decent to write a song. The not very good (score: 33 per cent) eighties "steel welder wants to learn ballet" movie Flashdance took an award home for the Giorgio Moroder-composed title theme. He would also later bring home a much better film’s sole award, when he penned Top Gun’s Take My Breath Away.

Picking the right song is how what may be the lowest-rated Oscar winner of all time did it: The Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor melodrama The Sandpiper has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 10 per cent, but win it did, for the song The Shadow of Your Smile (which isn’t even actually very good; Burt Bacharach’s What's New Pussycat? was robbed.)

Even an Oscar winner that is praised by contemporaries can be undone by the cruelty of time. One of the lowest-scoring winners is 1936’s Anthony Adverse, at just 13 per cent - not only did it win for Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress, Best Soundtrack and Best Editing, it was nominated for Best Picture. But however praised the historical epic might have been at the time, because Rotten Tomatoes aggregates reviews from online media, it does not appear to have dated well.

Perhaps awards can only ever reflect the critical mood of the time - Singin’ In The Rain has a 100 per cent Tomatometer score, but took home no Oscars. Best Picture that year went to The Greatest Show On Earth, now judged a 44 per cent mediocrity. Perhaps by the 2080s film critics will be stunned that the newly re-appreciated acting masterclass Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest only won for its visual effects, be baffled that the lauded classic Suicide Squad wasn’t a Best Picture contender, and be absolutely 100 per cent certain that Jared Leto was the finest actor of his generation. Maybe the apocalypse wouldn’t be so bad after all.