THIS is a book that teases, intrigues, draws you in - and then
delivers a hammer-blow shock, of the kind that makes you rush back
and re-read the earlier pages to realise quite how many assumptions
you had made about where the storyline was going. An immensely
satisfying read, in other words: no surprise that it was longlisted
for last year's Man Booker Prize. Unfortunately, it will not be
possible to discuss it without disclosing that hammer-blow shock;
so apologies to those who hate spoilers . . .
I did not initially warm to the narrator's voice. She comes
across as prickly, obstinate, and opinion-ated. She defies
convention and starts her story "in the middle", with a dramatic,
and yet also entertaining, episode in her student canteen; but the
full significance of this episode becomes clear only much later in
The very first page nudged me towards assuming where the plot
was going: "In 1996, ten years had passed since I'd last seen my
brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared." It sounded as if
we would be in the realm of The Memory Keeper's Daughter
(Kim Edwards, 2005), Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Kate
Atkinson, 1995), and Skallagrigg (William Horwood, 1987),
which all tell of twins forced apart by various traumatic
circumstances, exploring the effects on them and their families,
and coming to a not entirely unpredictable but still emotionally
As I continued to read, however, it became increasingly clear
that Rosemary - the narrator - is in some ways playing with the
reader. She reveals that Fern, the missing sister, was the one who
loved their mother most; that the events around her departure
traumatised the family so deeply that Lowell, their brother, also
ended up dis-appearing; that she herself was a highly unusual, in
some ways diffi-cult child.
This is no ordinary family - but the extent of its extraordinary
nature is not revealed until nearly a third of the way through the
book, when suddenly the narrator lets slip (as if we should have
known all along) that Fern was - is - a chimpanzee. Rosemary's
parents chose to run a home-based scientific research project that
involved rearing their human daughter alongside an adopted,
When the project is terminated, the family dynamics are affected
as profoundly as if they had lost a human child. The story
concludes with some sense of grace and forgiveness, but there is no
easy consolation, no particularly reassuring happy ending.
Unsettling questions linger, about the similarities and differences
between human and animal nature (what is "humane"? what is
"beastly"?); about our relationship to, and treatment of, animals;
about what love means - and all without a trace of sentimentality
that might help to gloss over the challenges.
Public campaigns have helped to educate people away from seeing
animals (especially small furry ones) as essentially children's
playthings, and there is greater awareness - or perhaps less
embarrassment - about acknowledging the grief arising from the
death of a pet.
At the same time, we can feel a kind of awkwardness about our
view of animals, especially those that are dependent on us
personally. Are we being inexcusably sentimental to shed tears over
a dead dog, when so many children around the world die needlessly
each day? Is it somehow degrading, or theologically unsound, for a
cleric to perform a pet funeral?
By telling the story of an animal deliberately raised as a
family member, rather than as a pet, Fowler lays bare this
awkwardness, the unresolved ambiguities, about how we view other
living creatures. Chimpanzees can turn on humans with lethal
results (try Googling "chimp attacks"), and the ape Fern is
banished from her family for fear that she might turn violent as
she grows up. Having said that, her adoptive family continue to
miss her, and mourn the loss of her physical presence in their
daily lives, while acknowledging that, realistically, she could not
have stayed with them for ever.
In some forthcoming readings for BRF's New Daylight
notes, the Revd Dr Bob Mayo writes of how "The eyes of an animal,
when they considered a human being, were attent-ive and wary. In
returning their gaze, human beings became aware of their
responsibility towards the created order - we, the animals' natural
predators, have had to learn to care for the earth and its
inhabitants and animals have been our teachers."
Fowler's thought-provoking - indeed, troubling - book ends with
an encounter between the adult Rosemary and the adult Fern after a
22-year separation. They gaze deep into each other's eyes, while a
necessarily protective pane of glass remains between them: "I
didn't know what she was thinking or feeling. Her body had become
unfamiliar to me. And yet, at the very same time, I recognised
everything about her. My sister, Fern . . . As if I were looking in
The Revd Naomi Starkey is a commissioning editor for BRF and
also serves as an NSM in the Church in Wales.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
is published by Serpent's Tail at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20);
WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE
OURSELVES - SOME QUESTIONS
Why do the Cookes move house so often?
For what, if anything, is Madame Defarge a metaphor?
What part does Harlow play in the narrative?
Who is ultimately to blame for Fern's departure?
How likeable is Dr Cooke?
Should Lowell have gone to find Fern?
Who suffers most from Fern's absence: Rosemary, Lowell, or their
Do you find Lowell endearing, or intimidating?
How significant is Todd to the unfolding of the story?
Does Rosemary's relationship with her mother improve after her
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 March, we will print extra
information about the next book. This is The Pilgrim's
Progress by John Bunyan. It is published by Wordsworth
Editions at £3.99 (CT Bookshop £3.59);
First published in 1678, The Pilgrim's Progress
is an allegory of the spiritual life. Part One is the story of the
journey to the Celestial City of Christian (an Everyman figure),
followed in Part Two by his wife, Christiana, and their children.
Their encounters with monsters and spiritual terrors in their
search for salvation, and the emblematic characters who accompany
them on their pilgrimages, constitute one of the most influential
works of Christian literature ever written in English. The book
became an immediate bestseller, and was No. 7 in the Church
Times 100 Best Christian Books (10 October).
John Bunyan was born near Bedford in 1628, and served in
the Roundhead army during the Civil War. He was baptised after his
marriage, and became a Nonconformist preacher, imprisoned for
preaching without a licence when the freedom of Dissenters was
curtailed after the Restoration. In prison, he wrote a spiritual
autobiography, followed by The Pilgrim's Progress. Despite
having had very little schooling, he was a prolific author and
Books for the next two months:
April: The Children of Men by
P. D. James
May: H is for Hawk by Helen
WE WOULD like to hear from people who use this page,
individually or in groups. Is it a useful service to the readers?
Should it be expanded or discontinued? Any other sugges-tions?
Please reply by email: email@example.com. Thank