Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

by Mugdha Wagle on September 10, 2014

We are all completely beside ourselves


Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9781846689666
Rating: ★★★★☆
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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of the Cooke family. A father, a mother, a son and two daughters. One day, one of the daughters disappears, and is never heard from. But the parents, who are involved in her disappearance, act as though nothing were wrong. The missing daughter is, quite simply, never mentioned in their family again.

The son, traumatized by the incident, makes increasingly reckless attempts to find Fern, his missing sister, but fails miserably. Finally, unable to take any more, he leaves, never to return.

Their story is narrated by Rosemary, the other daughter. Growing up in an American family that is more dysfunctional than most, she battles insecurity, an identity crisis, emotional isolation, self-esteem issues – and a horrible sense of guilt, for her role in Fern’s disappearance.

What you’ve read of this review, till now, sounds promising (I hope!). Well, you don’t know the half of it. And if I tell you, it will be the mother of all spoilers.

But heck, I can’t resist. So here it is.

What I loved

This central twist in the book comes in the 5th chapter. But the best part of the book was how unexpected the rest of the book is. The main revelation is not the only surprise in the book. Almost every second chapter brings out a zinger. There is Harlow, the drama queen accidental-friend of the reluctant Rosemary, and her weird, dangerous yet somehow endearing behavior. There is the possibly-antique puppet, Madame Defarge. There are the spiders who build fantastical webs under the influence of drugs. And there is Lowell, the brother who disappears in the wake of his sister Fern.

There are ruminations on family – what they tell each other, what they hide. There are questions on memory – how reliable it is. “An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

And then there is the wordplay. Personally, I love authors who juggle with their words. This book has instances of swordplay with wordplay – words like Refulgent and Ithyphallic (don’t Google that last one if you’re prudish, I’m warning you) which occur innocently in the narrative and later make a second appearance, like ninjas lulling you into a false sense of security before moving in for the kill.

What I didn’t

Towards the end, the book turns a bit preachy. Also, personally, I would have liked this book to have ended with a few more loose ends; I wanted to be left guessing about the ultimate fate of all the characters. I wanted to feel uncomfortable. However, many readers will probably feel the exact opposite; “Thank God it ends this way!”

Does it deserve the Booker?

Well, for the treatment of its subject, yes. For characterization, yes. For style and language, emphatically YES. For plot? Hmmm. And as I said before, IMHO, the end squandered the momentum that had been built up so carefully and flawlessly.

At the same time, this is a very very readable book. I finished it in one sitting, and considering the heavy themes being explored, it is no mean feat that they are presented in so easily palatable AND digestible a form.

The Verdict

If there is just one Booker nominee you want to read this year, I think this will turn out to be the one. (I’ll update this once I’ve read the others, but for now, I think I’m right.) It can best be described as paisa vasool – rich content, easy to read and enjoy. Go for it.

For the Guardian’s review, click here. For another Booker nominated book’s review, read about The Lives of Others.

Written by Mugdha Wagle

Kitabi Keeda of the most obsessive sort. When she’s reading something, interrupt her only if you have life insurance! Discovering a fantastic new author can move her to tears. Loves trekking, adores animals and venerates good food (eating it, not cooking it :))!

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