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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Breaking the Bond ceiling won’t solve British cinema’s race problems

Anyway, Ian Fleming’s Bond was grotesquely, unstintingly racist. As a character, it’s hardly the highest role available in UK film.

I don’t know which of the following is weirder: the idea that Idris Elba is the only black British actor, the idea that James Bond is the highest role available in UK film, or the idea that only by putting the two together can we be sure we have vanquished racism in our entertainment industry and in our hearts. I almost feel for Anthony Horowitz, who ballsed up the Elba question in an interview with the Mail on Sunday to promote his newly-authored Bond adventure, Trigger Mortis.

He even had another black actor (Adrian Lester) lined up as his preferred Bond to demonstrate that it really wasn’t “a colour issue”, but in the end, calling Elba “too street” sounded too much like a coded way of saying “too black”. By Tuesday, Horowitz had apologised for causing offence, thereby fulfilling his anointed role in the public ritual of backlash and contrition.

Whether Elba would make a good Bond depends a great deal on what your vision of Bond is. Elba is handsome, and he’s capable of exquisitely menacing composure – something more in evidence as Stringer Bell in The Wire than in his stompy title role in Luther. He can do violence of the sudden sociopathic sort. All of this puts him in good stead to do a kind of Bond: not the elegant killer gliding on a haze of one-liners, but something closer to the viciously alluring bruiser of Sean Connery. Something like the ur-Bond, the Fleming Bond.

The only thing is that the Fleming Bond is also grotesquely, unstintingly racist and in hock to a colonial past he wishes had never ended. “I don’t drink tea,” he tells a secretary in Goldfinger (ungraciously, since she’s just made him a cup). “I hate it… it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire.” Bond has always been a bit of a has-been. Even in his first adventure, he’s a tired and slightly ragged figure: past it from the start, an emblem of wistfulness for a time when everyone knew their proper place and an Eton-educated murderer could sit comfortably at the top of the heap.

“This country right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date,” he maunders in Casino Royale. “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing parts.” In the end, the only thing that saves Bond from this alarmingly unpatriotic attack of relativism is that he lacks the imagination to do anything apart from booze, smoke, fuck, and kill the people he’s told to kill. “A wonderful machine,” his colleague Mathis calls him, and this is exactly what Bond is: a beautifully suited self-propelling module for the propagation of white male supremacy.

One of his primary work-related pleasures is seeing that anyone non-white is “[put] firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.” In Live and Let Die, black people are essentially voodoo-addled amoral children, and the civil rights movement is a front for a Russian assault on the western world. Women, meanwhile, exist to be obliterated, the foils to Bond’s marvellous virility. Bond’s favourite kind of sex has “the sweet tang of rape”, and the women he does it to (never really “with”, because that would imply some kind of reciprocity) are “bitches” or “girls”, but utterly disposable either way.

He’s also not quite as glamorous as you think. Yes, there are luxury cars and card games and elaborate dinners, but Bond is a character strung absurdly between heroism and bathos. He saves the world, but he’s also the office bore delivering lectures on hot beverages to junior staff, and even a license to kill cannot save him from the terrible frustrations of the road system around Chatham and Rochester, which Fleming describes as unsparingly as any piece of weaponry. The accidental Partridge has nothing on the deliberate Bondism.

I suspect that Fleming would piss magma at the thought of Idris Elba playing Bond – almost a compelling reason to want the casting, but it doesn’t explain why there is such an obsession with redeeming a spirit-soaked, fag-stained, clapped-out relic of Britain’s ghastly rapaciousness. Nor does it explain why any good actor would want the role. It’s true that a black Bond would not be Fleming’s Bond, and thank Christ for that. Every rotten thing the character is, means and stands for should by rights explode on contact with postcolonial twenty-first century Britain.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.