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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Updated: Jan 8

I’ve not been recommending enough American authors, so here’s one to redress the balance a little. Karen Fowler isn’t only a resident of the United States, she lives in my home town of Santa Cruz ( although that’s as close as our acquaintance gets.) That and her writing.

I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves after hearing it discussed on Radio 4’s A Good Read. I don’t recommend reading, or listening to, any reviews of this book before reading it (except this one of course), because for this book spoilers really matter. I do recommend A Good Read in general. It’s a delightful conversation in which the host and two guests discuss three books, one recommended by each of them.

The storyteller in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is Rosemary Cooke. She’s telling the story of her life and she starts in the middle, when she was a student at the University of California, Davis. Rosemary’s life before this point was nothing like anything you might expect. Your agile reading mind will invent all sorts of scenarios until the reveal comes, which it does at just the right moment, before you get too frustrated with Rosemary for not being straightforward.

Most books are framed by the beginning and the end. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is framed by the middle. Rosemary is telling you her memories and she is also coming to terms with her life, and herself. She is aware of the deceitful nature of memory. “Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I’d climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family?” Come back to that sentence after you’ve read the book and you’ll see just how cleverly constructed it is.

The first, big, reveal comes early in the book but there is a lot more for Rosemary, and the reader, to discover. This is where the story goes back to the beginning.

Rosemary was a talkative child, to the extent that her mother told her to pick one out of any three things she wanted to say. Other people were less sophisticated in their reactions. One baby sitter bought relief from her five-year-old incessant talking by promising to teach her a new word every day, in return for an hour’s silence, “A word so lonely, so dusty with neglect…She would set the oven timer to make sure, which generally resulted in me asking her every few minutes when the hour would be up.” When her father got home Rosemary would tell him her day had been ebullient or limpid or dodecahedron. Then one day the word was ithyphallic, which she was asked not to repeat to her parents. “And just ask Lowell (her brother) if I’m the sort of person who keeps her promises. The minute I saw our father, I told him that my day had been ithyphallic, instead of the official day’s word, which was psychomanteum.” (If you’re reading on a Kindle, that highlight and look-up facility is going to come in useful.)

The traumatic event in her life made Rosemary train herself not to talk at all, particularly not about her family. But in this novel/ fictional memoir she does, a lot, and directly to you.

So no more. Remember those spoilers. If you like books with surprises, books that make you think about what humans do and why, and books where the main character views the world from a completely different perspective to your own, then We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is for you.

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