We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is one of those books that’s difficult to review because you don’t want to ruin the twist. It doesn’t have the slow, sneaking-up reveal of MR Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, which I probably won’t review here as I read it last year, but which was probably the best book I read in 2014 and is well worth a look. It’s nothing like as earth-shattering as the sudden about-turn of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, either (have you not read Fingersmith? Go and do it now, please, immediately). It’s still an intriguing moment that it would be a shame to ruin, however. I was certainly surprised, having thought up to that point that I’d cracked it and then finding myself proved entirely wrong.
The central character and narrator (though not, I suspect, the protagonist), Rosemary Cooke, is a particularly well-realised and vivid portrait of someone who instantly feels real. We have things in common, she and I – particularly a shared experience of having been the kind of irritating small child who never shuts up and who is surrounded by adults who tire of listening to endless tall tales.
As I say, she’s not a protagonist. Her sister Fern is, though indirectly; her friend Harlow moves the events of the novel forward in all manner of engaging ways. Her brother, Lowell, is the protagonist of his story even if not of this one. Rose, though? Rose reacts. A tendency to be reactive rather than proactive is something I struggle with myself – but in fiction it can lead to dull, two-dimensional characters, and Fowler has done an excellent job of avoiding that fate here.
If this book is about anything, it’s about family. They fuck you up, your mum and dad – and Rose’s parents certainly seem to have fucked up all three of their children, to varying degrees and in different ways. It’s part coming-of-age novel, part fictional autobiography, part psychological study of the effects of an unusual childhood. I was also very drawn to Rose’s mother – who reminded me of myself as well, though in a different way. “I wanted you to have an extraordinary life”, she says at one point, by way of an explanation for the decisions she’s made – a desire for which I have a lot of sympathy. It doesn’t always work out, though; Rose may have had an extraordinary life, but has that actually made her into an extraordinary person?
It’s not perfect. The book’s timeline is a bit jumbled and occasionally hard to follow; the whole thing is a flashback, and there are other flashbacks within it. It’s possible to lose track of when you are, and end up slightly out of the loop. It’s made an effort to deal with some very difficult issues in a highly personal way, and that can at times come off as perhaps not taking them quite seriously enough. All that said though it’s still well worth a read; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a touching and compelling book, one that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes true-to-life fiction with a bit of a twist.