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The non-elephant in the room

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Rebecca Nesbit 28 June 2015

Growing pains: detail from the paperback cover

It is clear that Karen Joy Fowler had done her research and this allowed for interesting insights

Editor's note:This review contains spoilers.

A readable, thought-provoking book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent's Tail, 2014) is told from the perspective of a professor’s student daughter, Rosemary. We follow her attempts to fit in with her university contemporaries and to come to terms with her family history. Although the book doesn’t focus on life as a researcher, it gives an interesting insight into experiments involving animals in the 1970s.

The loss of her sister has shaped Rosemary’s life, and the book starts with many of her unanswered questions. Why did her parents send Fern away? Where is she now? Most readers probably spot that something isn’t quite normal, but the big reveal may come as a surprise: her sister was a chimpanzee.

Rosemary and Fern were part of an experiment looking at the effects of raising a human and a chimp together. For Rosemary it is clear the effect is permanent, and she is left with some social skills which are decidedly simian. Throughout the story she moves from fighting this to embracing it.

I found the book an easy, enjoyable read. This was helped by the fact that I sympathised with Rosemary despite her lack of motivation for her studies and her inability to hold a friendship.

The book’s resident scientist, Rosemary’s father, actually appears very little. He rarely speaks and is one of the less well-depicted characters, but lab lit fans may find this is made up for by the inclusion of science. It is clear that Karen Joy Fowler had done her research about chimp behaviour and this allowed for interesting insights.

For me, one of the fascinating aspects of the book was an insight into animal experiments in the 70s, which are very different to those conducted today. The book was inspired by true stories of chimp test subjects (most famously 'Nim Chimsky') being raised by human surrogates. These studies often focussed on the use of language, and the chimps developed an impressive vocabulary of sign language, although this was never combined with an ability to understand grammar.

Finally, the ending was a disappointment. The story fizzles throughout the last 30 pages, with some attempts to tie off loose ends and move towards a ‘happily ever after’. This doesn’t detract from the rest of the story though, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a pleasing addition to the Lab Lit List.