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After finishing We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, it occurred to me that no matter what book I started next, nothing would come close to this. I finished this book in tears; it stays with you, and it gets under your skin. It renders following books meagre in its shadow. Fowler has crafted a novel of equally smart and funny proportions. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and has had an atmosphere of mystique around it; customers who have read it don’t want to tell me what it’s about, while the reviews spoil it entirely. I will not do this. I want to try to let you have an ignorant experience, like I did, because it makes all the difference.
There is a detail, which once revealed changes the game entirely, in the best way possible. The pivotal revelation comes 77 pages in, as Fowler uncannily anticipates the readers’ expectations and meets none of them. The central character, Rosemary, is the youngest of the Cooke family, with both of her eldest siblings having, for reasons unknown, disappeared. In the wake of her siblings’ abrupt departures, Rosemary has given up talking for the most part, though as a child, Rosemary insists, she wouldn’t stop talking. The mystery around her siblings’ departures, and her withdrawn silence forms the crux of this novel.
We are subject to Rosemary’s perspectives, as she navigates university, and has to grapple with her own troubled sense of identity. When she meets a new and wild friend Harlow, her conceptions of self are thrown into further disarray, and she must begin to take stock of her past. The entire crux of the novel is hinged upon Rosemary’s subjectivity and unreliability as a narrator, and certain events make it essential for her to rethink her childhood, and to reassess the memories she has locked away.
Fowler’s novel takes a sympathetic look at family breakdowns and repairs, childhood grief and trauma, and the impossibility of dealing with it all properly. Her novel also raises fascinating questions surrounding the ethics of scientific experiments, animal cruelty, the incompetency of airlines, and the ever-changing conceptions of family. With vivid and loveable characters, I want to preserve the feeling of reading this book, to put it in a jar for safekeeping (keep it secret, keep it safe).