Sunday, 1 February 2015

Superpowers

There seems to have been a lot of hubbub around Karen Joy Fowler's 'We are All Completely Beside Ourselves', even the audiobook is in a queue and the librarian said I could only have it for a week. I used my day off to knit and listen.

SPOILER ALERT
I loved this story. I had not read any spoilers so had no idea what to expect. It is about the complexities of family bonds, but made oh so much more complicated by the presence of another species. It elicits some very profound and mixed emotional responses, because of the nature of anthropomorphism, and how people feel and react to animals that we perceive as being 'almost' human. So in a family that is raising a chimpanzee alongside their infant daughter you can imagine it is not going to be a normal childhood. The story tells a back and forth tale of the various periods of her life and her coming to terms with the disappearance of her 'twin' Fern. To add to the trauma her brother Lowell also disappears as soon as he is able, leaving Rosemary to deal with her parent's silence as best she can. As readers we are left, like Rosemary, trusting at first in the 'gone to a farm' story, and then assuming the worst of her father when she finally learns what became of Fern. 
Science has long been fascinated by the ways in which we are the same as the other apes, and the ways in which we are different. Rosemary's childhood is an experiment in observing the development of the two species side by side, where Fern grows from infancy, learns some sign language and becomes a member of the family, and comes inevitably to think of herself as a human being. When the experiment if brought abruptly to an end the consequences are both traumatic and long term for everyone involved. Having been the centre of much focussed attention for the first five years of her life Rosemary then has to adjust to being just an ordinary kid. She discovers that "kindergarten is all about learning which bits of you are welcome at school and which bits aren't": the other children sense her 'otherness' and name her 'monkey girl', a term that sticks, in her own head as much as anywhere, to define her ongoing relationship with the rest of the human race.
The book raises far more questions than it ever answers; about the use of such species in human 'experiments', about how different we are, about when humans bond with animals do animals really feel the same thing towards us. I was left slightly disconcerted. A good reaction I felt. If you have to wait in a queue for this book I promise it will be worth it.

"For years I imagined Fern's life as a Tarzan reversal, raised among humans and returned now to her own kind. I liked to think of her bringing sign language to the other apes. I liked to think that maybe she was solving crimes or something. I liked to think we had given her superpowers."

2 comments:

  1. I think I had basically the same experience of this book that you had. I loved it; one of my top ten reads for 2014. I don't have anything to add here, though I do think the book answers quite a few of the questions it raises. I can't imagine many of its readers will be quite as supportive of animal research as they were before they started the book, for example.

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  2. Yes, I agree, though I think people see creatures like rats and mice differently from apes and monkeys, have different views about what are acceptable ways to treat them and different perceptions of their cognitive abilities.
    I think the incident with the kitten was so very telling, as a young child Rosemary recognises that although she had a bond with Fern, she was still an animal with no sense of having done anything 'wrong' in killing it. The story is almost about how much we *want* them to be just like us.

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