lexlingua: (Books)
[personal profile] lexlingua
We are all completely beside ourselves. With rage. With grief. With helplessness. That’s what the narrator of the book, Rosemary Cooke, tells us, how seemingly innocuous little decisions and innocent accidents can snowball into something disastrous. Rosemary is the daughter of a psychologist – and that in itself, is a major plot giveaway, because when you see a psychologist in the midst of the first few pages, you know something’s going to go very wrong.

Something’s gone wrong in Rosemary’s life – she used to be a bubbling chatterbox as a kid, but now she’s a quiet girl, looking for ways to become invisible. Her sister’s missing, her brother’s run off and joined an activist group, and her parents won’t talk about either of them. The first half of the book is a glimpse into Rosemary’s character, and a witty but sad thing is that glimpse. The second part— now that’s the part that throws everything for a toss.

Stop here, if you are afraid of spoilers.

For you see, Rosemary’s sister is not a human being – she is a chimpanzee, who was brought into their family as a socio-psychological experiment to test and understand human-primate relationship and evolutionary similarities. Back in the mid-1900s, many American families had started “adopting” chimpanzees into their homes and families.

The book raises some important questions about the meaning of humanity and the justification of scientific experiments. For instance, how close are primates to humans, and I am not talking of physical similarities here, but parallels in mental and emotional thinking. If animals can learn human traits (such as how to speak), can humans learn animal traits too (such as community living) – and what happens if they do? Far more importantly, is it okay to subject animals to injections and scalpels (and even laboratory deaths) for the sake of developing vaccines, cosmetics and medicines for humans? The book exposes some of the truly inhumane conditions that animals are subjected to, under that whole “the end justifies the means” premise. As the narrator quotes at one point:


“[she] taught him that in the phrase human being, the word being is much more important than the word human.”


It’s been a while where a book hit me on so many emotional levels. Fowler has written a truly empathetic account of a family torn apart, and Rosemary herself, so full of vulnerabilities, astute observations about beings and conflicting feelings, and so achingly human. It’s a book you will want to go back and read again. The plot in itself is a series of flashbacks of Rosemary’s family, and yet so much is packed in those scenes, they feel alive – as if it was all happening to you. We are All Completely Beside Ourselves was shortlisted for the Booker this year, and though it didn't win the award, it deserved to be on that list.

Can science ever fully understand or measure human (or non-human) emotion, instinct and intuition, or will living creatures always be the unpredictable, the unquantifiable, the insurmountable? We may be capable of logical reasoning, but we will always be creatures of emotion. At the end of the day, we cannot escape our hopes, our insecurities and our rivalries, our biases, our grief. We are all, indeed, completely beside ourselves.

Rating: 10/10
Highly recommended

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