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

Picture: STAVROS DAMOS
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Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem