We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler


Karen Joy Fowler, best known in science fiction circles for her award-winning stories, has now written a family drama with science as its backdrop. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was inspired by a real-life experiment in the 1930s in which a husband and wife tried to raise a baby chimp alongside their baby daughter. Both scientists, the couple carefully documented their findings. The experiment was discontinued when the toddler began mimicking the behavior of the chimp.

Similarly, the author-also a child of academics-spent her first 11 years growing up around the University of Indiana campus. Like the narrator's father, Fowler's dad was a psychologist who did home experiments on lab rats. As early as the age of 6, she recalls arguing with her father about animal intelligence, basing her conclusions not on data, but rather, on her observations of the family pets. She writes that this book represents a continuation of that long-running argument.

The book skips back and forth in time as we, the readers, are captivated, amused, and horrified by the recollections of the endearing narrator, Rosemary. Now in her forties, she recalls her life with her quirky human family and her chimp sister, Fern.  The novel has many surprising turns and unexpected revelations. Further discussion of the plot would prove to be a spoiler.

It is with good reason that Fowler's book was short-listed for the 2014 Booker Prize. It highlights very pertinent issues concerning the treatment of animals and ultimately, the treatment of our fellow human beings. At the same time, Fowler explores the notion of family with both humor and pathos. As noted book critic, Ron Charles, concludes:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves isn't just about an unusual childhood experiment; it's about a lifetime spent in the shadow of grief...Rosemary's voice and her efforts to understand--and forgive--herself are moving. Fowler has such a sprightly tone, an endearing way of sloughing off profound observations that will illuminate your own past even if you have no chimps swinging in your immediate family tree...What does it mean to be human, she asks, and what does it mean to be humane? Although there's little doubt where her sympathies lie, Fowler manages to subsume any polemical motive within an unsettling, emotionally complex story that plumbs the mystery of our strange relationship with the animal kingdom--relatives included. 
 (The Washington Post, Ron Charles, May 28, 2013)


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