Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

"We are completely beside ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail, 2014)

There are navigational cues -

  • "But don't get attached to him; he's not really part of this story", p.24
  • "And I've reached a point here, now that my brother has arrived, where I don't see how to go further forward without going back - back to the end of that story", p.48
  • "Some of you will have figured that out already. Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld [the information] for so long", p.77
  • "SOME YEARS PASSED./ Enter Harlow./ Now that you know me better, let take a second look at that first encounter", p.136
  • "AND HERE WE ARE, finally back in the middle where we left me", p.138

There's psychology -

  • "I am the daughter of a psychologist. I know that the thing ostensibly being studied is rarely the thing being studied", p.99
  • "You can train any animal into any behaviour on cue if it's a natural behaviour to begin with. Racism, sexism, speciesism - all natural human behaviours", p.169
  • "According to Premack and Woodruff, the typical human adult can work with four levels of embedded imputation - someone believes that someone else knows that someone else thinks that someone else feels unhappy - before becoming uncomfortable. ... Gifted adults can go in as deep as seven layers, but that appears to be about the human limit", p.188

The effect of siblings (even twins) on each other was investigated. I expected rather more about the nature of self-awareness, language and mind. A ventriloquist's doll appears (then is lost), and there are hints that persona-creation will figure, but that angle's not developed -

  • "I made up a friend for myself. I gave her the half of my name I wasn't using, the Mary part, and various bits of my personality I also didn't immediately need. We spent a lot of time together, Mary and I, until the day I went off to school and Mother told me Mary couldn't go. This was alarming. I felt I was being told I mustn't be myself at school, not my whole self", p.25
  • "There's something you don't know yet about Mary. The imaginary friend of my childhood was not a little girl. She was a chimpanzee", p.77
  • "We are so excited that, in the strangely illuminating phrase my mother favors, we're completely beside ourselves", p.98

The main character blames herself, distrusts her memory of childhood. Her mother kept journals about her daughter's early years, which she gives to the daughter. Part of the plot of the book involves the daughter trying to recover them, having lost them on a trip. Julian Barnes' "Sense of an ending" (which I'm currently reading) also involves a lost record of events (a diary), and an attempt to find out what really happened, and who was to blame.

The second half of the book rather dragged.

Other reviews

  • Ron Charles (Washington Post) (Plot is not the novel’s strongest suit. The wackiness that stumbles into the final chapters feels incongruous with the book’s poignancy and its serious themes. But Rosemary’s voice and her efforts to understand — and forgive — herself are moving)
  • Liz Jensen (Guardian) (Many a novel has devoted itself to exploring variations of Larkin's lament about what mums and dads do to their kids. But if any other book has done it as exhilaratingly as the achingly funny, deeply serious heart-breaker that is Fowler's 10th novel, and made it ring true for the whole of mankind, I've yet to read it. This is a moral comedy to shout about from the treetops.)
  • Elena Seymenliyska (Telegraph) (examines what it means to be human, nonhuman and something in between. Using both reason and sentiment, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves holds a mirror up to reflect what we’re really made of, both in what we do to each other and to other animals)
  • Lesley McDowell (Independent) (Fowler has that ability, present in a great deal of American writers’ work, to ease you into a family situation and make you feel as if you’d known every single member personally for years. ... Novels with “issues” can be a hard sell, but Fowler’s decision to make Rosemary’s loss and regret, her pain and her guilt, the main focus of her tale, makes for an irresistible, if often distressing, read.)
  • Henry Hitchings (Financial Times) (The strength of Fowler’s writing is its piercing evocation of the dynamics of family. Rosemary’s relatives may be eccentric, but their patterns of guilt, affection and evasiveness are familiar. Where the novel proves less successful is in seeking – indeed, straining – to make bigger points about the inherent brutality and insouciance of humankind)

No comments:

Post a Comment