We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

So the middle of my story comes in the winter of 1996. By then, we’d long since dwindled to the family that old home movie foreshadowed – me, my mother, and, unseen but evident behind the camera, my father. In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen years since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known.

Our narrator, Rosemary Cooke begins her story in the middle, when she is a 22-year-old student at the University of California. She’s changed from a child who talked all the time to someone who’s quiet, observant and thoughtful.

Before we’re told much about her family though, we’re shown Rosemary’s first meeting with Harlow Fielding, ‘psycho bitch’ and drama student. They meet in the university canteen where Harlow is having a – most probably staged (on her part at least) – argument with her boyfriend, Reg, involving a fair bit of swearing and plate smashing. All Harlow’s. When a campus policeman arrives to deal with the situation, he mistakes Rosemary for the culprit which antagonises her. Once she’s also dropped a plate and smashed a glass, she finds herself in the back of a police car and then a jail cell with Harlow.

The incident with Harlow serves two purposes; firstly, a telephone call from the police to her parents sends Rosemary back to them for Thanksgiving. It shows us the fractious relationship she has with them and also allows her mother to offer Rosemary the journals she kept when she and her brother and sister were young. Secondly, Harlow becomes a friend – of sorts – to Rosemary and, as with any new friendship, hopes, ideas and stories are shared.

So I told Harlow about a summer when I was little, the summer we moved from the farmhouse. It’s a story I’ve often told, my go-to story when I’m being asked about my family. It’s meant to look intimate, meant to look like me opening up and digging deep…

It starts in the middle, with me being shipped off to my Grandpa Joe and Grandma Fredericka’s. There was no warning of this and I couldn’t now remember what my parents had told me as to why – whatever it was, I wasn’t buying. I knew the winds of doom when they blew. I believed I’d done something so bad, I’d been given away.

The time spent at her grandparent’s house is the crux of Rosemary’s story. It’s an idea that Fowler repeatedly returns to as Rosemary tells us about her sister’s disappearance.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks at the way families, and particularly siblings, interact. It considers what it means to be human, the way we act on ‘beliefs in conflict with reality’ and how we ignore the misery in the world unless we’re forced to look at it. It’s a difficult book to review because the less you know about the main storyline before you begin reading, the deeper the impact of the tale Fowler tells and the more enjoyable the reading experience.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a book that tells a deeply affecting story through sentences which are both beautifully constructed and thought-provoking. I enjoyed it so much that when I sat down to write this review, I re-read the first few pages and wanted to continue on and read the whole book again. It is one to savour and discuss – and oh, will you want to discuss it. I look forward to hearing what you all think about it.

5 thoughts on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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