Completely Beside Ourselves

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen J. Fowler is a novel that will make you view relations, not just between sisters but also between siblings, in a completely different light. I can promise that, when the twist hits you on page 77, you will a) be so flabbergasted you will have to pause and then read the sentence again and b) never see your siblings, especially sisters, in the same way again.

It is a novel about love and hate and sibling rivalry, in a way which these themes have never been presented in before. It focusses on the relationship between Rosemary and Fern, sisters who are part of a scientific experiment. Because although Rosemary is a normal child, a regular little girl, Fern is a chimpanzee. A real chimpanzee. The novel is told from Rosemary’s perspective and discusses her childhood, the childhood she shared with a chimp. Towards the end of the book, Rosemary reveals that she felt Fern was the favourite child and that, in jealousy, she told her mum she was scared of Fern and of what Fern would do to her. Fern was sent away the next day. Just like a child who causes problems is institutionalised, Fern is sent away from her family, from all that she knows. But this is different, because Fern, as an animal, doesn’t have the basic rights that an ill or mentally unstable child would have, that even the worst criminals are afforded.

It’s interesting that Rosemary comments in the book “Language is such an imprecise vehicle I sometimes wonder why we bother with it.” Language is what separates us from animals. It is language that lets us communicate, gives us free choice and distinguishes us as humans. Rosemary used her speech to hurt Fern, even though she didn’t fully appreciate the impact her words would have.

Sometimes language is frustrating and imprecise. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it properly. When we abuse our privilege of speech, we can hurt others and sometimes our words have consequences that we would never imagine they could. So we need to be careful with what we say. Otherwise, what makes us any better than an animal?

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