You know how people say something is “incredible” or “unbelievable” when what they really mean it’s excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES is excellent: utterly believable and completely credible—a funny, moving, entertaining novel that is also a fierce, important, unblinking review of a shameful chapter in the history of science.
During the mid-twentieth century, when I was an active anthropologist, there was a great deal of interest in what exactly made humans distinct from other animals. Language was the key, people thought, and so there was a fad for raising chimpanzees and gorillas side by side with human children to see how and why their development diverged. Did chimps and gorillas simply lack the vocal apparatus to speak, or did they lack the cognitive capacity for abstract thought?
Sign language could bridge some of the gap, but what none of the experimenters anticipated was what would happen when the chimps and gorillas came of age as big, strong, hormonal, and ultimately frightening animals. Nor did anyone wonder how being raised alongside a chimp or gorilla might affect a human child.
And that is what WE’RE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES is about, though Karen Joy Fowler doesn’t reveal the secret until the center of the story, when the narrator tries to sum things up: “Once upon a time, there were two sisters, and a mother and a father who promised to love them both the same.” (And if I could have named this novel, it would have been RED CHIP, BLUE CHIP. You’ll understand why at the end of the book.)
The narrator’s voice is so captivating that I ordered the audio version after reading the novel because I wanted to hear Rosemary tell her story. Her effort to tell the truth is both hilarious and moving. She tries to be utterly honest about what seems to be true but might be a false memory, and identifies what seems to have been impossible and yet was real.
I hold a doctorate in biological anthropology and I can tell you that the underlying science is rock solid. This would be an emotionally gripping book for anthropology professors to assign to college classes conducting primate studies. It would also not be out of place in a college course on developmental psychology. The palpable, unsentimental physical reality of Rosemary’s sister’s otherness is stunningly believable.
What takes this novel to another level is the way moral and ethical issues of animal welfare are laid out with fairness and decency to all involved, including animal trainers and scientists—most of whom meant well, though some are quite rightly condemned as awful specimens of Homo sapiens. WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES was a recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award and other accolades, all well-deserved. It is also, simply, a wonderful read. Seek it out and then find everything Karen Joy Fowler has written. She is a believable, credible, excellent writer.