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Book Review: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

The happening and telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories, simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies.

There were whole sentences, paragraphs and pages in this book that I wanted to eat up and went back to do so repeatedly! I normally only re-read pages of a book if my mind has wandered and I can’t recollect what I just read - but Fowler’s writing allowed for no such distraction. Her work is delicious!

I have jumped on the bandwagon a little late with this one. Released in 2014, it somehow dodged my radar but I’m so glad it finally hit it.

The book follows the story of the Cookes family, told from the perspective of their daughter Rosemary (Rose). The blurb on the back of the book, and the opening pages, tell us that Rose had a brother, and a sister. Neither of whom she has seen for many years.

Rose has started college and the whirlwind entry of fellow student Harlow into her life sends her world upside down and causes her to start prying on some dark family history she has left undisturbed for too long.

It’s a jumpy timeline with Rose moving between the present day (the year 1996 in the book) and back to her early childhood, leading us up to the fateful incident that would reshape her family for most of their lives.

I’m going to keep this review spoiler free but safe to say that this book covered every single emotion possible and it did so with such style and grace I wanted to kiss Fowler and thank her for her creation!

Essentially we’re at the mercy of Rose as she tells her story, adding and removing details as she sees fit (but ultimately admitting to them afterwards). Her struggle is laid out for us to examine. She knows she is reaching a point in her life where she cannot hide any more. She cannot deny the parts of her that make her who she is. She is beginning to move from a space of fear to acceptance. And pulling her whole family along for the ride.

The book had me laughing and crying, feeling angry and distraught .. it conveyed Rose’s journey so beautifully that it made me wonder why the subject hadn’t been covered before. I devoured the book in a day and then had to message all my bookish friends straight away (only to be told that, of course, they had already read it).

What I took away most from this book was the concept of what it means to be a human being. With everything we know, everything we have seen, and experienced - how does the idea of ‘human being’ stand up? For us as individuals and as a society? What definition really matters when love is involved?

As Fowler herself brings to our consciousness:

“In the phrase ' human being,' the word 'being' is much more important than the word 'human.'”

A simultaneously heartwarming and heart breaking book, and an absolutely must read.


N/B: If you read this book and you manage to guess the ‘twist’ before it is revealed, try not to see it as a triumph. I was so engrossed in the storytelling that the twist eluded me until Rose’s revelation and I think the story was all the sweeter for it. When reading, don’t apply logic, just enjoy the story .. and the surprise of the twist when it comes.


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