We are all completely beside ourselves—book review

We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Book review We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Second time round for this book. I read it when it first came out in 2013 and it took a while to recognise it because the title sounds too frivolous for the book it becomes, and the story starts on a bit of a side note. A couple of girls in a canteen meeting and becoming friends. But then our narrator mentions her sister, Fern, and it all came flooding back and made me very uncomfortable all over again.

It’s a hard book to review without giving spoilers, but the discomfort lies in the fact that it’s now 2021 and there are articles in our media on how the Covid vaccinations are being tested. OK. We’ll leave that there.

Back to the meeting in the university canteen. Meet Harlow. She’s a drama queen. “Can everyone please leave the room so my boyfriend has more space? He needs a fucking lot of space.” She slammed her chair down onto the pile of catsup and dishes. More sounds of breakage and a sudden waft of coffee. The rest of us were frozen—forks halfway to our mouths, spoons dipped in our soups, the way people were found after the eruption of Vesuvius.

Rosemary’s funny and wry. She spirals back from her Harlow days to recount her childhood. Here’s another example:

They never reminisced about the time they had to drive halfway back to Indianapolis because I’d left Dexter Poindexter, my terry-cloth penguin (threadbare, ravaged by love—as who amongst us is not) in a gas station restroom, although they often talk about the time our friend Marjorie Weaver left her mother-in-law in the exact same place. Better story, I grant you. I know from Grandma Fredericka, and not our parents, that I once went missing for long enough that the police were called, and it turned out I’d tailed Santa Claus out of a department store and into a tobacco shop where he was buying cigars, and he gave me the ring off one, so the police being called was just an added bonus on what must have already been a pretty good day.

Funny, huh? This humour belies the childhood trauma Rosemary has suffered. It’s not a trauma any reader is likely to have suffered which makes the read a bit voyeuristic. It makes her odd. She goes from being completely garrulous to silent (though the yakking goes on in her head) and struggles to fit in and make friends. Harlow’s friendship is volatile and complicated, but comes at a time in her life when Rosemary starts looking back to make sense of things.

This is where the book gets interesting. We’re a way into the book before we learn about the disappearance of Rosemary’s brother and sister from her life (both still alive but neither in the picture). How realistic are childhood memories? Whose memories of a shared experience are true? How powerful is guilt, and how unnecessarily destructive? What stories do we tell ourselves and how easily do we inhabit them?

Everyone does this: filters the past so it makes sense, fills in the gaps. Most people at least try to do it honestly. We think Rosemary is trying to be honest, and we contrast her with the enigmatic Harlow who tells of her wild-child past with a hippy-chick mother and dozens of unsupervised half-siblings in a run-down warren basement of a derelict house. None of which is true. There’s a girl in Rosemary’s dorm who says her sister claimed to have been molested and then she changed her mind, said she’d dreamed it. Ruins the family. A bald lie? False memory syndrome?

Rosemary has some beautiful recollections of her and Fern leaping happily though childhood, competing for their parents’ attention or affectionately snuggled together for a story. One fairy story has an unhappy ending and Rosemary tells us: “Maybe later, after Fern left, I saw how I should have felt and revised my memory accordingly. People do that. People do that all the time.”

Despite this being a morally disturbing book, the humour keeps coming. Rosemary says of her dad’s drinking: “It kept Mom on high alert and I worried sometimes that their marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean.”

Yes: chose this book for book club. You won’t be disappointed. The main topic is a fat hole in this review but I promise it will keep you talking for hours.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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