Tuesday, July 29, 2014

book review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The backstory: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize. It also won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Prize.

The basics: Narrated by Rosemary, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of her family: her academic psychologist father, mother, brother Lowell, and sister Fern. Rosemary slowly tells their secrets, but we learn early on she hasn't seen Lowell in ten years and Fern disappeared seventeen years ago.

My thoughts: Rosemary is the best kind of unreliable narrator. She's quite honest with the reader about how she's telling this story--out of order. But despite knowing she's not telling a linear story (although it's easy to follow and even enhanced by its structure), she still managed to surprise me more than once with key details she waits to share. She doesn't lie, but she does omit at times. She even tells the reader she's doing it in a beautiful way: "The beauty, the utility of this story is in its power to distract."

While I enjoyed this novel from the beginning, I did find myself thinking, "it's good, but it's missing that wow factor. Is it really Booker worthy?" Then, a little less than a third of the way through, the bombshell I perhaps should have seen coming appears, and I was enchanted. Many reviews reveal this plot point, which is fair because it's quite difficult to discuss this book without it, but I'm opting not to. I didn't know it going into this book, and I think I enjoyed the novel more because of it. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves would make a wonderful book club selection--it's both accessible and deep, and it explores many issues that are ripe for discussion. If you've already read it, I'd love to have someone to talk about it with.

Favorite passage:  "Language does this to our memories--simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies."

The verdict: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a confident, accomplished novel. Its layers of plot, revelation and time are perfectly rendered. Fowler tackles issues large and small in this narrative that is itself both complicated and simple. I marvel at its combination of plot, character and construction. Rarely am I tempted to re-read books, let alone re-read them as soon as I finish, but I have a feeling this novel only improves with a second reading, which makes it a mighty strong Booker Prize contender*.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 321 pages
Publication date: May 30, 2013
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Karen Joy Fowler's website.

*Booker Prize judges re-read the longlist to decide the shortlist, then they re-read the shortlist to decide a winner. It takes a certain kind of novel to withstand three close readings in only a few months.

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1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I kind of glazed over this book in the beginning. I'm a book snob of the worst sort, so now that it's made the Booker Long List I really want to read it.


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