We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story about family. It’s difficult to discuss for fear of spoilers, and indeed, some reviewers have opted to ‘spoil’ the big reveal that – as the back of the book states is around page 77 – but I’m going to try and write my way around it. Rosemary is our narrator for this story, and she tells it in a style I’ve never come across before. We start in the middle, go back to the beginning, the middle again, the beginning and then the end which returns to the beginning again. Bits and pieces are revealed about Rosemary’s life out of order, allowing the reader to form opinions before they have all the information. It’s all very clever and extremely well executed. But really the story is about Rosemary’s family.

When Rosemary was 5 years old her sister, Fern, left the family. It’s unclear initially whether she went missing or was sent away but it’s an event that has had an impact on Rosemary’s life ever since. As Fern was the same age as Rosemary it’s an immediate hook that draws the reader in. Rosemary/Fowler quickly tells us that several years later her older brother, Lowell, also left under mysterious and foreboding circumstances. Rosemary’s parents are aloof and seen through the lens of both the older Rosemary telling us this story and a younger Rosemary, through the memories older Rosemary has of those times. The family drama is all realistically developed and often quite sinister as things begin to loom. There’s never a doubt that something’s coming. A big reveal.

And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s not even something enormously shocking. Once it comes you’ll go ‘huh, that makes sense’ and realise there’s still well over three quarters of the book left. Everything before page 77 is informed in hindsight by the reveal, but everything after is still the same story. It’s still all about Rosemary and her family. What I’m trying to say is that despite this enormous twist being touted as such a big deal, it’s not a book that lives and dies on the strength of how it pulls the wool over the eyes of the reader. Because it doesn’t. There’s a very good reason we don’t know about it beforehand, and Rosemary/Fowler lets us know why. It’s not just a gimmick.

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The characters in the book are fantastic. As Rosemary reveals everything out of order, sometimes even going back to earlier scenes once we have more information, the characters are layered in a very unusual way. Whether Rosemary’s friend Harlowe, who initially comes across as a borderline psychotic prima donna but becomes a lot more, or her brother Lowell who stays very much in the background of the story for a lot of the book until he becomes just as vital as Rosemary herself. They’re all realistic and feel as though they exist both within Rosemary’s narrative – skewed as it is by her unique point of view – and out of it.

This is a very difficult book to discuss with anyone who hasn’t read it, as my jumbled and confused ‘review’ shows. But trust me when I say it is worthy of your time. A gripping and very unusual (while also very deliberately…normal) family drama it is both something different and something familiar. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is thought-provoking, funny, tragic and heartwarming.

(Just don’t go for the audiobook.)

2 thoughts on “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler”

  1. Really the only thing I’d say is don’t worry about if the twist is spoiled because as wild as it is it’s essentially what the whole book is about anyway, it just makes the first little chunk a bit more interesting with hindsight after you know what’s really going on. So hard to explain – basically it’s still worth reading even if you’ve been told the big twist!

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