Welcome Caroline and thank you to Sylvia for moderating We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
Getting into a book sometimes creates a challenge and the first 76 pages of this one certainly did.
The story commences in the present with protagonist Rosemary recounting memories of her happy, very loving, if somewhat chaotic, upbringing with sister Fern, brother Lowell, mother, and father a behavioural psychologist.
Rosemary is a difficult turbulent character with the writing bouncing all over the place to reflect her voice. As her mother declared “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” in this household. Intriguingly Rosemary also alludes to great sadness in her early life when Fern and Lowell suddenly both disappear from the family. We were confused, did they die?
At this early stage, for some members, frustration was seriously setting in. For others, the account reinforced the fact that happiness is not state in itself but is a product of being loved and surrounded by people who care.
Then we reached page 77 and the big reveal.
Fern is a Chimp and Rosemary was brought up in tandem as her “twin” until Fern disappeared. This totally unforeseen twist gave us all a jolt. We reassessed, and some reread, the first 76 pages with fresh eyes. Fern through the experiments undertaken by her father and the graduate students, had taken on human characteristics. Rosemary’s early play with Fern meant Rosemary’s chattering incessantly, biting, pulling hair, jumping on tables etc. was also considered acceptable.
Our attention now truly captured, the book took on a darker turn. Fern had been taken away to live, caged up, in a Laboratory when she became too big and dangerous to reside in a human home. The family fell apart. Lowell left, ending all contact with his parents. He became heavily involved and subsequently incarcerated for his Animal Liberation activities.
We all agreed that it was a plot of great imagination and the writing very successfully captured her “monkey-girl” character. It was also a novel about memories, how selective they are – Rosemary hardly mentions her father….although presumably as the instigator of the animal experiments he would have been a powerful force in the family – and how reliable those memories, like all memories, actually were.
Fowler referenced the real-life cases in the 60s and 70s where Chimps had been subject to similar experiments. Fowler’s accounts were brief but prompted one member to say she would have almost rather read a non-fiction analysis of these experiments. Totally inappropriate as they were, maybe their tragic results did result in the understanding we have today?…….a difficult call.
The OBG discussion moved onto the whole topic of the arrogance humans hold over animals. Many animal lovers in the group, including a volunteer at Taronga Zoo, had heart warming accounts clearly demonstrating their intelligence.
One member noted the Great Ape Project seeking to legislate Primate rights. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Ape_Project How far do you go? “Would you worry about your goldfish?” quipped a member. We touched upon the challenge of using animals in medical research. Yes easy to have an outcry against animal testing of mascara and lip gloss, but the more tricky debate of their use in a cure for cancer was left hanging. Each of us reflected on our position privately.
Swinging back to the book Sylvia noted there were several in-jokes which none of us would have got without her help…..the name plays of Rosemary’s equally anarchic friend Harlow and of Madame Deferage, the puppet. What exactly was the point of the Ventriloquist dummy anyway? We didn’t understand that plot line. Some felt Lowell’s story was perhaps more interesting and would have liked to have seen it developed from his viewpoint..
In conclusion, we agreed that it was a book well suited to OBG. The discussion of the challenging issues it raised greatly enhanced the original read. Happy participants moved on to Tea and Tim Tams.