We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Some books are hard to review without giving the game away. And this book is certainly one of them.
In some ways We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a classic story about sibling relationships. Rosemary is trying to rebuild her identity now that her sister Fern and brother Lowell have vanished from her life. A regular case of unhappy families. Except that there’s a twist about 70 pages in… and there’s not really a lot I can say about that that won’t ruin the book!
The twist is great, and it’s a really interesting concept. And for that reason alone, the book is worth a read. But it’s only really worth a quick read. An end-of-holiday-what-have-I-got-left-in-my-suitcase-for-the-plane-ride-home kind of read. And that’s exactly when and why I read it. It did the trick. It was interesting enough and readable enough to not feel like a massive waste of time, but it also didn’t grip me. And towards the latter pages I wouldn’t really have minded if I’d run out of time and never returned to it.
The novel raised some interesting ideas about the nature of relationships, what binds us together, and where the boundaries of human ethics lie. Some moments were moving, but many others were a bit too preachy. I found Rosemary to be a lacklustre narrator, and the moment where the story was interspersed with letters, poems and the suchlike seemed forced and unconvincing. Speeches were inexplicably carved into sections and you get the feeling that the author is only able to sustain interest in short bursts, which is ironic for a book in which the main character has the habit of speaking non-stop!
I’m not entirely sure how this made the Booker shortlist, nor why so many of the reviews (which you absolutely shouldn’t read unless you’re happy being confronted with a fairly major spoiler!) speak of people sobbing their way through the pages. For my money, the narrator was two-dimensional to elicit anything close to a tear, though she managed a good few laughs.
It really wasn’t a bad book. I don’t regret having read it. But I could happily have stopped about 100 pages in and have felt that I’d benefitted from the best this novel has to offer. It’s worth a stab in a three for £10, or £1.69 on Kindle kinda deal. But if you’re looking for a read that has literary substance as well as a well-concealed twist, I’d suggest that this isn’t it.