Book Reviews

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler – Review


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – Review by Helen O’Leary

Everyone thinks his or her own family a little strange but it’s hard to rival the peculiar upbringing of Rosemary Cooke. At college when other students share the oddities of their clan, trying to outdo one another, Rosemary remains tight lipped. She knows she would win hands down if she told childhood tales. You see Rosemary’s sister was a chimpanzee.

Rosemary’s father was a behavioural psychologist at a university and growing up Rosemary and her sister were subjects of a behavioural experiment. For this experiment Rosemary’s parents adopted a baby chimpanzee and reared the primate alongside their own baby daughter. Their lives are observed by an army of clipboard clutching graduate students who documenting the behaviour and development of child and chimp. Like twins Rosemary and her sister spend every minute together, playing, communicating through sign language and mimicking one another. As the years pass the chimpanzee grows naturally more aggressive and in the rough and tumble of normal sibling rivalry Rosemary is no match for her sister’s physical prowess.

The experiment continues for the formative years of Rosemary’s life but is abandoned prematurely and suddenly. The family are grief stricken, Rosemary is traumatised and the consequences are even worse for the chimpanzee.

Even though after age five her chimp sister has vanished she leaves an indelible mark on Rosemary’s life. Growing up with a chimp sibling would understandably skew your idea of normal behaviour. When Rosemary starts school her mother sits her down and lists some unacceptable behaviours; no hooting and shrieking when food appears, no climbing on tables, no biting. But despite her mother’s efforts to help her blend in, other children sense Rosemary’s strangeness and she’s branded ‘monkey girl ‘. Rosemary remains a loner and guilt burdened that she was partly responsible for her sister’s banishment.

Although the premise for this tale seems bizarre it’s closer to reality than you might realise. During the 1970’s such controversial primate experiments were not uncommon in American universities. There was much interest in the ability of primates to acquire language skills and placing chimpanzees with families was a means of studying this. This novel manages to incorporate scientific descriptions of some of these real and fascinating experiments without boring the reader with a ‘science bit’. Karen Joy Fowler uniquely considers the fall out from such these experiments from the perspective of both the adoptive family and the chimpanzee.

Rosemary narrates the story and she addresses herself direct to the reader in a witty and self-revelatory way. The story begins in the middle and this allows for incorporation of a few twists and surprises. There are many other elements to the story besides the chimpanzee including the usual college high jinks, an encounter with the law, lost suitcases and puppets, and the return of a stray brother. Yet the thread of the narration is strong and easily supports all of this.

This is a very engaging read, I’m not sure quite how Karen Joy Fowler manages it but she tells a story that is funny and sad, endearing yet serious. It is a novel that you truly won’t want to leave down.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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