Van has finished reading…We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

14 Nov

Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the writing is exquisite, a tale told with a deserving level of complexity, not just the use of language but the pace of it, the precision of the vocabulary, and perhaps above all the grace notes, those crystal chimes that cast you back to what would’ve appeared earlier as a throwaway line, a funny aside or a strange departure from expectation. Sometimes a book is a joy to read because the story it tells is so vivid, so believable – regardless of the fact you might mutter, ‘unbelievable,’ in that surprised way, so extraordinary that you start to look at what’s around you in a different way. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is that rare conjunction of both these things. What a fantastic book!

Rosemary Cooke, in the short prologue, is looking back, watching her two-year-old self’s garrulousness on a silent cine reel, telling us she used to a talker, telling how those who now her now would be surprised. She offers a hint of fairy tale conjured by what she sees, and the fairy tale flavour endures as she follows her father’s advice – given in those garrulous days when he was trying to stem the flow a little – to begin in the middle. What follows is the unpicking of a strange and broken family, the uncovering of secrets and not a small pinch of sleight-of-hand. Until about page 77. Then, in what is paradoxically the most bizarre admission in the book, everything begins to make sense.

I’m hard-pressed to think of a character off the top of my head who’s quite so clearly a product of their situation as Rosemary. Of course it takes a little time to realise this because that situation is not apparent until post page 77. Look back at the behaviour in the opening chapter post page 77 and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

It’s one of those interesting things with reading, deciding how much you can trust your narrator – of course it’s something of a dilemma when you decide you can’t because to keep reading, to keep enjoying, you have to trust, at least to a certain extent. What’s most pleasing about the construction of Rosemary is not so much the establishment of that level but the reasoning behind it. You get to that moment and it ceases to be a question of trust and becomes something else entirely. Every reaction, every word, every step, every expression makes sense and it can only break your heart to hold that world in your mind’s eye. As the book progresses that understanding deepens and deepens as Karen Joy Fowler unpicks not just Rosemary’s troubled existence but what it really means to be family. It’s only fair to say that there are moments in this book that might just sicken you, and there are many many more that will make your heart ache. I can’t tell you the relief I felt towards the end of the book as I came to realise the many possibilities I came to fear weren’t going to be realised. About three quarters through I came close to a bout of borderline ugly crying while reading on the train, which is never a good look!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is above all things a book about love, and that’s a joyous thing to cling to. It’s about family and what it means to be connected to another being. It’s also about the lengths we’re prepared to go to to understand who we are, and how sometimes that needle doesn’t point in a positive direction. If you haven’t read this book I’d urge you to find. It really is masterful. I only hope that you’ll have the benefit of approaching it without having come across any spoilers.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was published by Serpent’s Tail on the 19th June 2014 ISBN:9781846689666

You can find Karen on her website


3 Responses to “Van has finished reading…We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler”

  1. Annecdotist 30/11/2016 at 4:28 pm #

    I loved this book and good to see it cropping up again.

    • vanisreading 01/12/2016 at 1:23 pm #

      Such a good read. I think it’ll be one of those that lingers in the memory and starts cropping up on recommended lists in a few years.


  1. My top five reads of 2016 | vanisreading - 10/01/2017

    […] finally brought me round to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, a book I’d been aware of for a while. The thing I was most glad about is […]

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