We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is intelligent, heartbreaking and gripping; and has one of the best twists in plot I have read. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, this is a memoir-style novel on a girl besieged, at sea with competing memories, growing up to realise that her father had used her childhood as an experiment. But this is not just a story about families, growing up, siblings, memory: there are serious moral questions about our humanity. But how to tell you about this book without giving it all away?
When going through the 2014 Man Booker Prize Longlist six months ago, I Googled each novel listed, reviewing a few reviews, and making my personal ‘to read’ shortlist from that. This book piqued my curiosity because of the big, grand thing that everyone couldn’t talk about: there were themes on the fallibility of memory, parental subterfuge, self delusion and self identity. All of this is interesting enough, but what made this so special so as to get shortlisted for the Prize? Only one reviewer I saw dropped the massive spoiler – Liz Jensen in The Guardian – and their short warning in the article was completely undermined by the unmissable lead image, totally giving the game away. (I won’t link to the review, but if you’re curious you can easily find it. I would suggest not looking for it until you’ve read the book itself.)
So while I still have not forgiven Jensen’s editors for their unthinking inclusion of the spoiler image to her review, this was in fact the review that put this book on the Christmas list: I got it; I could see what made it so special; and the grand plot twist made it a story I had never read before.
The Cooke family is shattered: Rosemary’s twin sister Fern disappeared from the family when she was five years old in circumstances that don’t like to be remembered, that flex and change with time and memory. Rosie Cook is our self-aware narrator, starting in the middle, skipping to the beginning, diverting to explain a moment, jumping to the middle again, and then back to before the beginning. “The one” that she and Fern were is gone, and instead of being a single Rosie, Rosie is incomplete. She is also a child, grateful to be the one that wasn’t “given away”, and guilt-ridden for feeling that way. Her mother collapses, her father withdraws, her older brother Lowell leaves.
There is a before and after division in the family, but through Rosie’s narration it becomes clearer how our brains narrate their own memories, screen and reproduce and alter and block them out. Rosie is a flawed narrator, but in her informed, academic way she completely acknowledges it, and this is part of what adds to the style’s self-self-consciousness: there are stops and starts to change chronology, note a psychological point, call out impossibilities in a memory that seems so real and true. This does not detract from the flow of the plot, and becomes a revealing and endearing way to establish Rosie’s character.
It is a beautifully told story, divulging itself to the reader, slowly, honestly telling the actual story. But to make what makes this book so worth reading is the question Fowler raises about ourselves: how much can you compromise morality before you start compromising your humanity? Those little moral compromises that we accept every day: they add up. The actions of Rosie’s parents, Lowell’s defection, Rosie herself: how much we compromise our moral aspect without even thinking, and how that affects our family around us.
This was a book I really enjoyed reading, and the repercussions from it are still echoing through my subconscious. Did the parents make the right decision? Did anyone else think of the affect this would have on Rosie’s own development? If we’re not ok with a moral compromise, is it ok to pass it onto someone else’s hands? Was this a justifiable experiment; what would be a justifiable experiment? We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a heartbreaking book; smart, open, and funny. But its moral concern with our very humanness is what has stayed with me, and keeps those questions reverberating around my mind.