Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Twists are a tricky business. They can make or break an artiste as Manoj Night Shyamlan will ruefully attest to. Fowler takes quite the risk with her shocler which is revealed 77 pages into her gripping tale, in the Man Booker shortlisted, We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. As far as these things go, hers is quite clever not to mention “irritatingly coy” and feels more than a little ludicrous. On the strength of it one tends to become a tad dismissive about the weighty themes the writer had hitherto been grappling with using a deceptively deft touch and surreptitiously clever writing that draws up dread – inducing visions of the smoking ruins of a family that once included loving parents and three siblings, two of whom are gone possibly never to return.
            Then a miracle occurs and ever so gently, Fowler weaves her intricate spell pulling the unsuspecting reader into the heart of her wondrous story, filling them with empathy and getting them invested emotionally with every one of her characters irrespective of whether they are human or not. Case in point is a marionette we get to know as Madame Defarge and whom Rosemary Cooke, the narrator/protagonist tries unsuccessfully to protect only to wind up losing her the way she has too many of her loved ones.

            Rosemary is reeling from a double blow - the loss of Fern, the twin sister who has been taken away from her and whose departure she might well have brought about in the extreme throes of sibling rivalry and Lowell, the runaway brother, she adores, now embarked on a self – destructive path of no return and who with the inexplicable cruelty of the very young may have held her responsible for the spectacular disintegration of their family. As always, Rosemary is inclined to agree with her beloved sibling and for the longest time she runs from her past as though it were a hound from hell out to get her, armouring herself in denial until the day she realizes that her very future is imperilled because of her inability to confront the ghosts from her unorthodox childhood that refuse to die.

In a bid to make amends and to absolve herself of the debilitating guilt that has long enslaved her, Rosemary begins a meandering journey through the dangerously slippery slope that is memory, piecing together pieces of her life that are too painful to be borne even as the phantasmagorical wisps of clues dredged up from her tormented psyche play hide and seek with her, concealing, misleading and tricking her outright into a false sense of security before pulling her down under and leaving her breathless with misery.
            Funny in parts but mostly heart – rending, Fowler draws attention to the ethical obligation that science and scientists owe species ranked lower on the food chain than the homo sapiens, in their often ruthless quest to alleviate the suffering of the latter be it from illness or their frustrated attempts to zero in on the perfect moisturizer or lipstick. Sterile labs that carry out their secret experiments have seldom taken on a more sinister cast. Needless to say the author is far more effective than animal rights activists with their penchant for featuring topless celebrities in order to induce people to curb cruelty towards our four – legged and feathered brethren. In fact, readers will undoubtedly experience an unexpected pang of guilt, the next time a filthy rodent crosses their path and be warned that a fun - filled trip to the zoo, especially the monkey enclosure is likely to bring on a fit of hysterics.

            Rosemary Cooke is a wonderful narrator with a disconcerting but delightful habit of engaging her audience directly - “My father made a crude joke... If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t. You’d think less of him and thinking less of him is my job not yours.” as she bares her soul with exhibitionist and gay abandon provoking laughter and tears in equal measure. With her intimate reveal of fractured relationships and scientific experiments gone hopelessly haywire, this moral comedy is a harrowing hoot and a half. 
An edited version of this originally appeared in the New Indian Express. You can read it here.

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