Before I dive right in to talking about this book, a warning! There is a piece of information revealed in the story about a third of the way through that very few people will have seen coming. Knowing it beforehand will give a very different reading experience so if you like your books unspoiled, click away now! After this paragraph, there will be spoilers – it’s simply impossible to talk about this book without them.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves starts in the middle of the story, in 1996. Rosemary, a 22 year old college student, once had both a brother and a sister, but now has neither. When she was five, she was sent to stay with her grandparents for a few weeks and when she came home, her sister Fern was gone. When she was eleven, her brother Lowell disappeared and is now wanted by the FBI.
So far, so good … Up until this point, I was right on board with the story. I loved Rosemary’s voice, the pieces of information dropped in about Lowell and Fern intrigued me and I was eager to know what had happened to both of them.
Then came the reveal: Fern is not in fact, Rosemary’s biological sister, but a chimpanzee that was adopted by her family and raised as her twin as part of a scientific experiment. Had I read this on the back cover of a book, I’ll be honest, I probably would have put it down again straight away. However, the story had been written so strongly up until this point that I was happy to read on and see where it took me.
Fern is sent to a laboratory after five years with her foster family. After spending her entire life being treated as a daughter and a sister, she now falls under the care of a scientist who sees her as just another animal. For years, Rosemary and Lowell are unaware of this, believing their father when he said she was living a farm with lots of other chimps. (On a side note, I believe I am one of the only people who knows a dog that was actually sent to a farm.)
Over time, Rosemary suppresses the memories of Fern and the reason she was sent away and the novel follows her as she rediscovers what happened and the part she played in it.
The book is based on some real life experiments that took place in the 1970s, where chimps were taught sign language. Some of whom were adopted by families and raised as human children, two of the most famous examples being Washoe and Nim Chimpsky. While Washoe’s story has a reasonably happy ending and she remained well-cared for, Nim Chimpsky’s story makes for sadder reading. These lines from the wikipedia entry are particularly upsetting:
When Terrace [the scientist in charge of the experiment] made his one and only visit to see Nim after a year at the Institute of Primate Studies, Nim sprung to Terrace immediately after seeing him, visibly shaking with excitement. Nim also showed the progress he had made during Project Nim, as he immediately began conversing in sign language with Terrace. Nim retreated back to a depressed state after Terrace left, never to return to see Nim again.
The novel raises some very interesting questions about how our early life experiences can shape us. Raised as the sister of a chimp for five years, Rosemary adopts many of Fern’s behaviours and it is only when she starts kindergarten that she realises how different she is from other children. She never shakes off some of those early instincts. It also raises ethical questions about using unsuspecting people in scientific experiments, and of course, the use and abuse of animals for the benefit of science. Many real-life experiments are talked about, and it’s clear to see where the author’s sympathies lie.
Overall, this is a worthy longlist nominee for the Man Booker Prize. It’s well-written, entertaining and the story is something I have not stopped thinking about in the 24 hours since I finished it.
That said, it’s not perfect. I found the ending rushed. I also found it tough to empathise with Rosemary and Lowell when they talked about losing a sister. While I can accept that Fern was part of the family and that they loved her very much, I just can’t quite make the next leap forward to see her as their sister and so, I failed to emotionally connect with the novel.
Do I think it will win the Booker? No, I can’t see that happening. I do, however, thoroughly recommend it and it’s one that will stay with me. It’s left me with a lot to think about.