Imagine being the unwitting subject of a long-term scientific experiment in your own home.
Some years ago, writer Karen Joy Fowler and her adult daughter visited the university where her father was once a psychology professor. The conversation turned to research where chimps were adopted into families, some with children. Her daughter asked “What would it have been like to be the child in that experiment? You should write that book”. This novel is that book– an accessible but intelligent imagining, exploring questions of family and what makes us human.
The fictional lead character, Rosemary Cooke, is the daughter of a primate researcher telling us about her life. We first meet her as a uni student, grappling with the sudden disappearance of her adored twin sister Fern when both were five. Her whole family bear the scars of this incident, decades later. It is central to the book. But (spoiler alert) what doesn’t emerge until a quarter of the book through, is that Fern is a chimpanzee. Rosemary’s early life was as a chimp’s ‘twin’ for her father’s research. Rosemary is distraught when Fern goes. The whole family, and the individuals within it, fall apart.
With Fern, and as a study subject, Rosemary constantly chatters away to her father’s live-in, note-taking grad students and anyone who’ll listen. After Fern and the students go, Rosemary’s family tire of the ‘extravagant abundance of words’ that they once marvelled at. Eventually Rosemary clams up almost entirely. Her strangeness is compounded by behaviours learnt from Fern and unchecked by her parents, like jumping on tables and touching strangers’ hair. She’s teased at school as ‘monkey girl’. Her kindergarten report describes her as “impulsive, possessive and demanding” like a chimp. Her adult life is spent suppressing these traits.
The book’s other characters are also intriguing – the janitor Ezra who lets strangers into Rosemary’s apartment unasked, Todd the nerdy flatmate who insults people in Japanese, Rosemary’s bickering family members. But Harlow is the most important character in Rosemary’s adult life.
Fellow university student Harlow gets Rosemary arrested within 15 minutes of meeting her yet becomes a friend. Rosemary recognises Harlow’s chimp-ness. Harlow has few behavioural boundaries (and long arms!) but meets an emotional need. As the narrative loops back and forward, we gradually find out what happened to Fern. The revelation is disturbing but the book’s ending is ultimately upbeat.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is wonderfully engrossing, like watching a train wreck. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, the first time US writers like Fowler could participate. I loved Fowler’s sharp eye and dry wit, eg Harlow’s boyfriend has the ‘brain of a bivalve’. Her prose is intelligent, contemporary, vivid and concise. Not a word is wasted.
Science book lovers will also enjoy the science Rosemary uses to make sense of her experiences. The appendices are also a nerd’s delight. There’s information about a selection of chimp studies and an article by Harvard’s Richard Wrangham places them in scientific context. Wrangham explains these studies wouldn’t be done today due to research ethics concerns, eg. human-raised chimps traumatised by removal from their chimp families, chimps’ physical strength posing a safety risk to researchers. He holds up Jane Goodall’s work as the gold standard of primate research. Since 1960, Goodall studied chimps not as pets in human homes but in their own communities, observing daily, natural interactions. Wrangham concludes: “our wild, wonderful relatives are still out there for now, in their own environments. Which is where they should be”.
Carrie Bengston is a science communicator formerly with CSIRO. A bit of a tragic science nerd, she loves to see research findings reach a wider public and enjoys making that happen. She’s been a member of a book club in her community that reads fiction, occasionally fiction with a science bent, hence this book review.