We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Reviewed by Simon Thomas

When 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 soundtrack, 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 editors.

Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail, 2013), 323pp.

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