Rosemary Cooke can separate her life by “the time period before her sister Fern was there” and into “the time period when her sister Fern was not there”.
She can also divide it into time periods of when she used to talk (she talked so much a neighbour asked if she was training for the Talking Olympics, she was a Gold medal contender) to the time when she fell completely silent.
And then….the true identity of her sister Fern is dropped. Oh, she said she gave us clues here and there and that some of us may have figured it out. (Rosemary tells her story to us in a very conversational tone throughout). I actually didn’t pick up on it as I didn’t closely read the synopsis or any of the reviews for this book. Therefore, the reveal did have shock-value for me. Of course, this is where upon closer inspection of the audiobook cover art should have come into focus for me. The audiobook cover art and for most of the other covers, some of the family members are illustrated there. However, the UK version (the red and black cover posted below) gives none of it away.
Initally after this reveal of Fern’s identity, I did question (again) how We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves made the Man Booker longlist. As Karen at BookerTalk comments – she doesn’t anticipate this one going further in the competition. I admit to feeling the same. While this is my first read from the 13 in the longlist, it still begged the question in my mind how this was worthy of a major literary prize nomination. Oh, but for certain, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a heartbreaking and emotional tale, and one that left me thinking with great sadness for Rosemary and her brother Lowell, and on animal research, notably when using chimpanzees. These aspects will rip your heart out while reading, but set up against some of the more literary works in this competition, I fail to see how this would have the literary stamina to proceed on to the shortlist.
Often times when reading, I thought of The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson, epecially after her first reveal of Fern’s identity and how Rosemary and her brother Lowell were expected and raised to consider Fern as their biological sister. In the Family Fang, the brother and sister are used in their parent’s experimental art installations and here, Rosemary and Lowell are being used in their father’s university research experiment. For both families, the psychological destruction is intense.
This intense heartbreak continued with Fowler’s narrative on the use of other experimental primates brought into people’s homes, labs, and how they were later turned out. She continues with the stories of what happened to them once they were no longer wanted, needed, or required. It is devastating and leaves a long imprint on your thoughts and mind.
However, there were many times where random and unnecessary filler litters the story and where my focus wandered and strayed from it. There is also some silliness included, especially to this ventriloquist’s doll named Madame DeFarge. Madame DeFarge is given a voice and used in the storyline too often and only worked against the seriousness of the story, and causing further perplexity as to why this was nominated for a Man Booker Prize. (That’s starting to sound like a broken record here, my apologies.)
I will say however, that I was very pleased to have listened to the audio production of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Orlagh Cassidy’s narration is very appealing, well suited and perfectly cast to narrate the part of Rosemary. As Rosemary is sharing her story in a very conversational manner, the audio narration works very well here. I do not think I would have enjoyed this as much or enjoyed this style of writing had I read the text version.
The shortlist comes out in 3 weeks and I will be quite surprised to find this title on it. An enjoyable and heartbreaking read overall, certainly, just not solid enough for a major literary prize, and notably for one as “serious” I suppose as the Man Booker.
This will be posted simultaneously on the Literary Hoarders site.