We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Reviewed by Simon Thomas

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWhen we did a piece on the Booker longlist recently, I cheerfully said that I hadn’t read any of them – as always seems to be the case, for every longlist. My editorship with Shiny New Books has made me rather more aware of new fiction, and I intend to read at least one new novel for each issue (while burying myself contentedly in the reprint section). Well, a last minute read of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler means I have, in fact, read one of the longlist. So… what did I think?

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I don’t think it’s really good enough to be on the longlist. I can’t really work out why it is. But this is a recommendations magazine, and I’m still writing a review of it – and the reason for that is that I’m still happy to say that it’s worth reading. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not great literature, but it’s interesting and entertaining for a quick read.

It’s also difficult to write about. A lot of the marketing has been around the Big Twist. And that twist arrives about a quarter of the way into the novel, leaving the reviewer with the decision whether to spoil the twist or write a skeleton review. I’m a big believer in not revealing anything that the author works to keep concealed, so I’m going to have to follow the second course.

Rosemary Cooke narrates the story, and is telling it from the distance of some years. She openly starts in the ‘middle’ of the story, when she is a university/college student and has just got in trouble with the police. This is uncharacteristic for her – she is a quiet, well-behaved, intelligent young woman, although the quietness is a latterday addition. As the first words of the prologue say:

Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child. We have a home movie taken when I was two years old, the old-fashioned kind with no sound track, and by now the colors have bled out – a white sky, my red sneakers a ghostly pink – but you can still see how much I used to talk.

What has brought on this quietness? It’s too simple to say that it stems from childhood trauma, but it’s not far from the case. It’s not long before the ‘middle’ of the narration is taken back to the beginning – or, if not the beginning-beginning, then the end of the beginning. And that is the time when Rosie went to stay with her grandparents, and returned to find out that her sister had disappeared.

We know early on that Rosie’s brother Lowell and Rosie’s sister Fern have disappeared, leaving Rosie essentially an only child with her parents. What we don’t know is why they went, where they went, or whose actions decided it. The novel doesn’t seem to be about the after-effects of child-kidnap (thank goodness), but something is going on…

And, so, we come to the twist. So it has been called. To my mind, it isn’t really a twist. A twist in a narrative throws everything you’ve read so far into a different light, making the reader re-evaluate and re-assess everything. Sarah Waters does this brilliantly. The so-called twist in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (again, without giving anything away) is actually in keeping with what comes before it. I won’t say that I knew what it would be, but my guess wasn’t far off. Basically it settles down the confusion and questions of the first quarter by giving some answers that were held back; it doesn’t change the nature of the narrative.

Something else the twist does is drop the momentum of the novel. Perhaps the biggest weakness of the novel is Fowler’s inability to keep the pace going. The middle of the novel is a bit of a hinterland – without the intrigue of the first quarter, or the interesting moral questions and self-interrogation that Rosie undergoes in the final quarter. People are reintroduced; memories become clearer – but it’s not particularly grabbing. The first and final quarters deserved better.

I always think it’s important to write about style, because that (in my view) is probably the most important quality in a writer’s tool-kit. And Fowler’s certainly isn’t bad. But it’s only really serviceable. I expect more from a Booker longlist candidate. Now that I have finished the novel, I would find it impossible to write a paragraph in the style of Fowler, or to pinpoint anything particularly characteristic of her prose style. It feels like a great deal of other modern novels.

That weakness can also be a strength, if the reader isn’t asking too much. For a beach read, or a quick read, or (especially) a book group read, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a great choice. It addresses a fascinating topic (which I can’t mention without spoiling the plot), and does so in a voice that is unobtrusive. I’d certainly recommend picking up the novel if you get the chance, but do so with the right level of expectation.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors. 

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail, London, 2013 repr.2014) 978-1846689666, paperback, 323pp.

3 Comments

  1. When I finished reading We Are Completely etc I was surprised that it had made it to the Man Booker Long List. Though I liked it, I felt that it lacked substance. It made me wonder whether the choice was politically correct. When posted this in my blog one of my readers reacted ‘ the subject is that important’, thereby making my point. I hope We Are Completely Beside Ourselves despite of its good intentions does not make it to the long list.

    1. Simon

      Yes, yes! I don’t think a book’s subject should ever be enough to qualify it as great literature.

      1. I think the subject and theme are important though. I’d say half subject/half style, with a little more bias in favour of subject. I did think this book tackled an important subject, which was “what does it mean to belong and why is belonging so important to us?” I’ve often thought of that as a subject, and thought it was very effective to take the subject one step further.

        Style I thought was distinctive too – a mixture of a youngster from a “hipper” generation than most of us, but one from an academic/emotionally aloof background. Bearing in mind the author is a 63 year old grandma, it was definitely not a case of the author mixing themselves up with the character.

        Having said that, I’ve just read Philips Hensher’s The Emperor Waltz and am amazed that it didn’t even make the longlist when this has made the shortlist. TEW is much more complex in theme and varied in tone… but Hensher has been shortlisted before, so maybe there is something of bringing completely new writers to an audience about the decision?

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