Reading Karen Joy Fowlers We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was not what I had expected it to be. Having read the utterly straightforward and enchanting Sister Noon some months before, I expected something equally charming and simple, which this novel certainly is not.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers in the story, but it certainly provides insightful perspective on the level of cruelty humans are capable of. This was a hard story to read – not in the sense that I struggled to get through it or didn’t want to read it, but in the nature of its themes, which are quite weighty and at times depressing. Besides human cruelty towards animals, Fowler touches on the theme of family and self-identity. Some of the content she draws on is autobiographical in nature: her father, also a psychologist like the father in the novel, worked with animals in science labs when she was growing up. However, the amount of research that Fowler must have poured into this book to understand and write about experiments on chimpanzees in the early 20th century is impressive.
In summation, this is a hard read. The central character, Rosemary, is both relatable and completely foreign, as she takes us through the events she experiences on a California campus in the 90’s, and those that scarred her in her childhood. Fowler’s literary technique of swinging back and forth between middle, beginning and end of the story certainly adds weight to her primary focus on chimpanzees. If you enjoy her work, and you are prepared to have your thoughts challenged, I would suggest this one. If you’re looking for some light reading, maybe give it a skip or opt for Sister Noon instead.
I paired this book with the delectable Montpellier Chardonnay, made in the beautiful Tulbagh valley and which gives rewarding notes of pears and vanilla.