Book Review: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
The narrator has a psychologist father who tries to incorporate a lesson into everything, an overwrought mother, a missing brother who’s being sought by the FBI for arson, a sister who’s also missing. The book starts out feeling like a story about yet another dysfunctional family. And, in a way, it is. Except that it’s a very different family and, in fact, the very definition of ‘family’ evolves over the story.
The thing I liked most about this book is the way the writer plays with details – revealing some, hiding others till later; readers are allowed to make assumptions, only to have them startlingly turned on their head a few chapters down the line. In fact, it is only in Part 2, Chapter 5 that, in the course of one innocuous-looking sentence, it suddenly hits you who the sister actually is.
The book is largely about memories – the protagonist’s memories of the first five years of her life – and the story structure and narrative style is especially effective in depicting the nebulous, shifty nature of memory. In the story of one’s life, memory can be an unreliable narrator. Memories come to slowly replace the original events they represent, even though the memories themselves are not immutable – happy memories become brighter over time, tinged with nostalgia, while the more uncomfortable ones slowly morph into something more palatable, or are completely suppressed. For example, in the book, different characters have very different memories of some of the events that happened in the past, and it’s never clear whose version is the right one.
In all, a touching, witty, thought-provoking book.