We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – just to the left of the action


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was lent to me by Mr Literary Kitty at a weak moment in my life when I wanted something ‘that’s easy to read and where nothing bad happens’. Well, it was easy to read; Karen Joy Fowler’s style is accessible and engaging, but I think Mr LK’s definition of bad things and mine must be different.

I don’t want to give too much away about the book as some elements of it hinge on surprise and I, having read nothing about the book in the run up and not even having bothered to read the blurb, was surprised by them. Reading the book that way made me look at the narrative in a new light, as per Fowler’s intentions, and I don’t want to deprive you of that if you haven’t already had things spoiled for you by a Chatty Cathy.

But I will say that I found some elements of this book quite depressing. Our narrator Rosemary is a solitary college student who has never quite fitted in for reasons that become clearer later on. Her father is a miserable bore, a scientist and, periodically, a drunk. Her mother seems to have been swallowed whole by a family tragedy or two some way back and is now a shadowy husk of her former self. Rosemary’s ostensible family home sounds like a creepily airless mausoleum – no wonder she isn’t keen to visit. But college doesn’t seem much of an escape, especially since it is the desperation to hold onto one of the ghosts of her past that convinced her to enrol here in the first place.

One day in the college cafeteria, Rosemary meets Harlow, a captivating apparent madwoman, who is smashing crockery around a man who is trying to break up with her, and she feels for the first time since her childhood that she might have found her other half, someone she can be herself around. Of course, Harlow sets the reader’s spider senses tingling. This self-absorbed handful is surely going to be the next disaster to befall Rosemary…isn’t she?

Despite the pervasive sadness at the heart of this book, it’s not all doom and gloom and the subject matter is extremely interesting. Fowler is a smart and highly readable author and Rosemary is a quirky narrator with a much more interesting supporting cast. Maybe that’s why the book didn’t really dazzle me like I expected it to. Things happen in Rosemary’s orbit, but not so much to her. She’s always standing side-on to the action, so this story is a little bit muted, a little bit unsatisfactory, like a play where all the real action happens off screen. But who knows. Maybe that’s the only way to tell a story like this. Not everything can go from beginning to middle to end, with a quest completed by a hero along the way. Sometimes you have to just dive in and splash around for a bit. And you could do worse than to do that here.

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