An overzealous librarian gave away the surprise in Fowler’s book. Since it is almost impossible to write something about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without giving away the true nature of Fern I am afraid that I also will have to.
Spoiler alert: if you want to be surprised, stop reading now.
Fowler takes us along in a comment on an experiment gone terribly wrong. Baby girl Rosemary and baby chimpanzee Fern are raised together in order to see what Fern can learn from the humans. When they are both five years old it becomes apparent that though Fern is able to learn sign language and can communicate with her human family she is still a chimpanzee. Her aggressive behaviour makes it necessary for her to leave the family. The experiment has gone wrong in another way as well. Though Rosemary’s parents do not realize it, she has adapted that many chimpansee characteristics that she finds it difficult to live in the normal human world. Being teased about her chimpansee sister does not help of course.
At the start of the novel Rosemary is struggling on at university. A chance encounter with a fellow student releases memories and for the first time Rosemary starts talking about life with Fern. Somewhere around page 60 the reader finally discovers that Fern is a chimpanzee and not a human. Going back and forth in time Rosemary reveals the events leading up to the difficult decision that Fern had to leave her family. Rosemary also discovers that she has avoided the truth about Fern by refusing to talk about her. It takes her militant brother Lowell to finally make her go in search of the truth and of Fern. Where Lowell tries to liberate Fern and ends up being sought by the FBI, Rosemary’s choice is more pragmatic. On discovering Fern in a lab, she helps improve her conditions. Rosemary realizes that Fern – just like her – no longer fits in either world. One thing has not changed however: Rosemary and Fern are sisters and will be forever.
Fowler’s novel is written well, the chosen structure which reveals the truth step by step is clever. Rosemary is a nice person and as a reader I felt for her and her sister. When it becomes clear that Rosemary and Fern have been experimented on by their parents, I was shocked. I do not think however that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves should make it to the Booker Short List let alone win the Booker Prize 2014. I am afraid that it would be mainly an applause for political correctness, less for a briljantly written book.