We are all Completely Beside Ourselves was on the Booker long-list in 2014 and the general consensus appeared to be that it wouldn’t make it to the short list (it didn’t) because it was too ‘light’ and ‘funny’. I loved it.
A lot of the pleasure that I tend to get from the Booker prize is my regular rant about how they picked the wrong book, frequently because they choose something worthy and weighty and moral as opposed to the books I personally preferred from a given year. I am grateful to the judges however, for at least nominating Fowler’s novel, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it and it was a joy.
The book is narrated in the first person by Rosemary, an American college student; she is intelligent, sensitive and inarticulate. Like the narrators of Kate Atkinson’s wonderful early novels (none of which were even long-listed for the Booker) she has to fight against her difficulty with the constraints of story-telling in order to finally express herself. It’s a self conscious adoption of the story as therapy mould of narration that works so well in Philip Roth and Margaret Atwood; as the protagonist works through their history, they diagnose for themselves, and for us, what has made them who they are.
The two time frames for Rosemary are her childhood, brought up as part of an experiment by her loving, scientist parents, and her belated coming-of-age in college. As for the trauma in her family’s past, it is evoked and re-awoken in the extroverted and disturbed Harlow Fielding (drama student) whom Rosemary encounters during a cafeteria food fight and gets to know when they’re both subsequently arrested.
Rosemary must work through her repressed and shameful childhood memories in order to discover her true personality as an independent adult. At the same time, she needs to find a balance between her naturally outgoing and affectionate impulses and the introversion expected by modern society. I realise that this might sound neither light nor funny, but Fowler’s prose is sparkling and witty to the extent that the overall tone lifts the subject matter into unexpectedly uplifting territory.
If you’ve read the book you’ll realise that I’m treading really carefully around a big spoiler, but there is an unexpected twist in the childhood trauma story. It’s the kind of twist that makes a book stand out, for me at least, because I would not have seen it coming had I not heard an ill-judged review of it…it didn’t spoil the story for me, but I do wish I could have come to it cold.
Finally, at the end the book Rosemary becomes a nursery school teacher. I’m a teacher myself and my mother runs a nursery – I wish more nurseries were like Rosemary’s (and my mum’s!) it made me happy just reading about it. Overall the book deals with difficult and troubling subject matter, but always with generosity and love. There are so few novels which present such fondness for their characters and Fowler achieves this superbly. If ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ (actual Booker winner 2014) is better than this, it must be a very impressive book indeed.