Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon. Before, I had a sister. After, none.
Before, the more I talked the happier our parents seemed. After, they joined the rest of the world in asking me to be quiet. I finally became so. (But not for quite some time and not because I was asked.)
Before, my brother was part of the family. After, he was just killing time until he could be shed of us.
Before, many things that happened are missing in my memory or else stripped down, condensed to their essentials like fairy tales. Once upon a time there was a house with an apple tree in the yard and a creek and a moon-eyed cat. After, for a period of several months, I seem to remember a lot and much of it with a suspiciously well-lit clarity. Take any memory from my early childhood and I can tell you instantly whether it happened while we still had Fern or after she'd gone. I can do this because I remember which me was there. The me with Fern or the me without? Two entirely different people. (p. 56)
What constitutes a family? Is it a grouping of genetically-related persons who lodge together in a common dwelling? Does the adoption of others into the home create family bonds? If so, what happens to a family's bonds when the adopted member is removed suddenly? These questions are just a few of the ones raised and addressed in Karen Joy Fowler's 2013 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, recently selected for the 2014 Man Booker Prize longlist.
The story centers on the relationship that Rosemary Cooke, now in her early 20s in the narrative present of 1996-1997, formed in the late 1970s with Fern, who later was removed from the family in 1979 when Rosemary was five. Theirs was an unusual relationship, one that was in equal parts grand social experiment and extended familial bonding, and for the first section of the novel, the reader only learns just a tiny bit about what made this experiment special and how their separation affected the entire Cooke family. Fowler's story is built around a slow unraveling of the central mystery surrounding Rosemary and Fern's too-brief siblinghood and a direct discussion of that might ruin for some potential readers the magic of this tale.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is largely told from Rosemary's point-of-view. We see flashbacks to various key points in her young life, to how she struggled to conform to social expectations for kindergarteners and how her various social relationships reflected a lack in her life. Her parents, but especially her father, are shown in a negative light, as the experiment conducted by them has had a deleterious effect on all four remaining members of the Cooke family. But it is Rosemary's brother, Lowell, who is the most readily damaged by the sundering of the Rosemary-Fern relationship. He turns against his parents, against his society, and becomes what might be described as an eco-terrorist, one who is on the run from the FBI during part of the 1990s narrative sections. Fowler does an excellent job in fleshing out the other family characters with short, sharp observations that give each family member a backstory without the need for much description.
Fowler has carefully constructed the narrative, as Rosemary's reminisces combine with her current social interactions to create a contrasting before-after effect that leads to a gripping tale of loss and recovery. Fowler subtly shows these gradual changes in Rosemary after her separation from Fern and how over the intervening 17 years she has come to terms with the changes caused by that loss. Rosemary, like her parents and brother, is not the same as she was "before," but the "after" Rosemary, despite her closer relationship to Fern than what the rest of her family experienced, is somehow more resilient, less prone to the self-destructive behavioral changes that have afflicted the others. These less damaging changes enable Rosemary to deal well with Fern when she re-encounters her nearly two decades later in a very different social milieu. Their brief meeting is poignant without ever slipping into maudlin melodrama.
We Are Completely Beside Ourselves was my seventh-favorite 2013 US release and it is not surprising to see that it was nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize after its UK release. It is a touching story that displays a keen level of insight into what makes us social beings. Fowler's prose is carefully crafted to fit the characters and plot. The characterization, as I noted above, is top-notch and the plot moves steadily, with very few hiccups, towards its emotional denouement. It is a fitting nominee for this award, one that I would highly recommend to readers of a wide variety of literary genres.