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A new twist on dysfunctional families

06 February 2015

Naomi Starkey finds no happy ending in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler


Teasing the reader: author Karen Joy Fowler

Teasing the reader: author Karen Joy Fowler

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 book.

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 satisfying conclusion.

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, orphaned ape.

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 a mirror."

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); 978-1-84668-966-6.


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 parents?

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 father's death?


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); 978-1-85326-468-9.

Book notes
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).

Author notes
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 preacher.

Books for the next two months:
April: The Children of Men by P. D. James
May: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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: readinggroups@churchtimes.co.uk. Thank you.

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