Monday, June 10, 2013

We are all completely beside ourselves . . .

What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be part of a family? And what happens when we experiment with the lines we draw between human and not human, family and property?

In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler explores the effect of these questions on Rosemary Cooke, whose life is sharply delineated between an idyllic early childhood and the aftermath of the loss of her siblings, both of whom, we are told, are still alive. The tension in the story arises from wanting to find out how things could go so wrong as to leave Rosemary and her parents pretending that two family members never existed.

Strange factors have influenced the trajectory of the family’s lives and the development of their personalities, which are fascinating from a psychological and a personal perspective. Because Rosemary’s father is a psychologist, and because of the circumstance under which she grew up, there’s room in the book for conversations about the definition of sentience, the Theory of Mind, and the ethics of scientific experimentation, which are integral to the plot and quite fascinating.

 Karen Joy Fowler is best known as the author of the bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club, which was made into a movie of the same name. Because I’m not fond of books about Jane Austen or book clubs, I know her best from her short story collection Artificial Things, published in 1986, which is still on my shortlist of personal favorites because of the combination of lyrical writing, feminist science fiction, and stark and haunting settings in many of the stories. Although We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not science fiction, it feels as though Fowler has discovered a way to explore many of the same themes in literary fiction as she did in the stories I love.

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