Monday, December 9, 2013

A Charming, Chattering, Completely Unreliable Narrator: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is like that hypertensive friend you meet for coffee and you realize, after a caffeinated hour, that you've never gotten a word in edgewise, but that doesn't really matter because you've been held in thrall by the conversation which has bounded along on a series of breathless loop-de-loops.

As this funny, quirky novel begins, narrator Rosemary Cooke admits she’s always been a “great talker.”  As a child she chatters like a chimp in a zoo and really gets under the skin of her parents--a father who’s “a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis” and a mother who has retreated into near catatonic madness.  Could they be driven to drink and insanity by Rosemary's tongue-flapping, teeth-clicking babble?

"There were occasions on which I had to be stopped," Rosemary tells us in the book's prologue:
      When you think of two things to say, pick your favorite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behavior, and the rule was later modified to one in three. My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I'd tell him, and the door would stop midway.
      Start in the middle then, he'd answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.
      Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.
And that's exactly what Fowler does as well, opening the book "in the middle" when Rosemary is a twenty-two-year-old, "meandering" through her fifth year at the University of California, Davis.  There's an unforgettable scene in the school's cafeteria, and boom! we're off and running through the rest of Rosemary's story.

This is a book about looking back while desperately trying to move forward.  Along the way, the classic nature vs. nurture argument is put in the petri dish and closely examined, both by the narrator and her creator.

As she's grown older, Rosemary has retreated into silence after her family experienced a traumatic upheaval.  Two of her siblings go missing (at separate times) and the majority of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about Rosemary’s quest to learn what happened to them.  I won’t say much more because surprises abound in these pages and I don’t want to have angry readers come throw rocks at my house because I’ve spoiled things.  Let’s just say, things aren’t always what they appear to be.

At one point, Rosemary says, “There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.”  There’s a lot of mist in this book--and Rosemary is a very unreliable narrator guiding us on our journey.  But, hey, unreliable narrators are fun, right?  None were ever as fun as Rosemary Cooke.

What’s most delightful and addictive about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is what we like to call the “voice” of the novel.  It’s clever, funny and pretty damned poignant in places.  And it never stops chattering in our ear.

A shorter version of this review previously appeared at Book Riot.

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