Several years ago when social media sites were first becoming a thing and everyone was flocking to MySpace, I received an unexpected message one day from someone I had known as an adolescent. He was someone in my boy-scout troop that was a bit younger than me. He was also weedier and geekier than I was so an easy target. I have memories of being quite nasty and bullying (verbally, definitely not physically) towards him in the way kids act when they've been bullied themselves. I now recognize I did this in order to boost my own self confidence and try to impress other people as I felt so insecure myself. When I received his message I was overcome with guilt recalling the way I treated him. I wrote him a long message apologizing for my inexcusable behaviour in the past. His response was one of total surprise and bewilderment because as he recalls I was nothing but friendly and helpful towards him. In fact, he thought of me as a mentor and someone he admired.

So whose memory is correct? Was I mean to him and he’s forgotten? Was I only ever mean to him in my head or behind his back? Was I nice towards him but have supplanted these memories with bad behaviour because of complicated feelings to do with my own insecurities? The answer is unknowable. This is what “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is about. The narrator Rosemary questions her own memories of her family life which was cataclysmically torn apart at a young age. At the beginning of the novel an event occurs in a cafeteria where she meets an emotionally unstable girl named Harlow who triggers instincts and memories within Rosemary that have lain dormant since her childhood. While Harlow serves as an interesting character in counterpoint to Rosemary at the beginning of this novel she becomes less interesting the more the novel progresses. When Rosemary begins living independently at college she tries to sort out her story starting in the middle, moving back to the beginning, coming back to the middle again and finally ending closer to the present day when she’s much older. Her process is methodical but the memories keep getting muddled up as she can’t be sure whether to trust them or not. Feelings of guilt, anger, shame and despair colour the past to such an extent that what she recalls is sometimes totally at odds with what other members of her family claim happened or what physical evidence shows happened.

A Madame Defarge marionette puppet makes a strange unsettling appearance in the novel

A Madame Defarge marionette puppet makes a strange unsettling appearance in the novel

Fowler writes intelligently about the way memory is so often distorted by our own aspirations and motives. We can look back upon events and wish that they had occurred one way or another depending on what we’re feeling at the time. She writes, “There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.” Rosemary has thought over events from her early life over and over again so much that they’ve been unconsciously recast to suit her feelings. She has composed the story of her and her family’s life in language which confuses the facts. It’s something everyone can relate to in the way we have certain stories about our lives we’ve told time and again so that they’ve been refined into a certainty that may or may not match what actually happened. Fowler observes that “Language does this to our memories – simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.” The reader must try to wade through Rosemary’s honest-intentioned account to try to disentangle the reasons why her family really splintered apart.

Many reviews and discussions around “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” have centred around the fact there is a big twist in the plot this novel. This is a case where we have a really forceful narrator who only chooses to release information in her own time. The point at which she reveals the twist in her story seems to me as significant as the twist itself. It challenges us to question our own assumptions. I love how Andrew Sean Greer’s novel “The Story of a Marriage” also did this well. I think that plot twists shouldn’t only be included to surprise and thrill the reader, but to make us question how we think and reconsider the limited way we sometimes look at the world. Karen Joy Fowler does this eloquently in her skilfully constructed narrative. This novel is a pleasurable, thought-provoking read that will leave you feeling quite emotional – especially if you equate the conundrums it presents about memory to instances in your own life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson