Saw Karen Joy Fowler at the Wheeler Centre last night and she was terrific. I love these author talks at the Centre. It’s such a wonderful resource to have here in Melbourne. Amazing to have Karen here in Melbourne on the night she’s been included on the Booker Prize short list.

I loved the first novel of hers that I read – The Jane Austen Book Club. Such a clever idea. All the book club members based on modern versions of JA’s major characters. It was a hoot.

This new one, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a darker tale.


I loved the writing but was not so enamoured about the central plot. Something she takes some time to reveal. The structure of the novel is interesting – she starts in the middle and from there moves back and forth in time. Surprisingly it works. Karen talked about why she did that. She wanted to delay revealing what had caused the family to split asunder. To be like the central character and keep hidden the special circumstances of her upbringing that made her how she was. Interesting. And hard for the marketing people and reviewers as she found out. Hard for herself talking about the book. The talk proceeded on the basis that everyone had read the book – so the mystery was explained.

I really enjoyed the depiction of the family – Mother, Father, older brother and younger sister, and one other. As Karen said, all good people trying to do the right thing. Far better than depicting mad, bad or other not normal types. The father is a scientist – who works with animals. Like Karen’s father. But not a mad one prepared to sacrifice decency and sympathy for those animals in pursuit of proving a theory. Mother in love with her husband, caring about her children. Older brother has disappeared from view when we meet him. But I agree with Karen, he is revealed as the saddest character as we read on. Rosemary, the daughter is the main character. She doesn’t quite fit in – at college when we meet her, and earlier at school we discover. The story is based on a true one and it was fascinating to hear about them.

Karen did a lot of research. Reading books about families who had gone through this sort of experience. She was interesting on how she came to write this book – a question she doesn’t welcome. In this instance her daughter prompted her to tell this story. Interesting too how she approaches writing and researching her novels. Usually she reads broadly to see where and how she can tell a story. Here she read narrowly to understand the story she wanted to tell then researched more broadly – even beyond what was needed for the story. Asked (by me) about the title – which is strange but oddly appropriate with its multiple meanings – she said for a long time the novel had no title and then suddenly she had it. And despite expecting it, no-one demurred.

The members of this family are all dealing with grief. All in their different ways – and as a family barely managing. I was cool on the cause of the grief – and perhaps a central premise of the book concerning our (human) attitudes towards other animals. But I enjoyed the book. For the characters, for the depiction of that family managing their particular circumstances. I loved the depiction of the times. Karen said her editor was not so keen on the pop culture references which make the book lighter than it might otherwise have been. She told a great story about her editor appearing not to know much about popular culture. She (the editor) once chided Karen for referring to a popular band in the 1960s of four boys from Liverpool – You can’t expect your audience to know who you’re talking about Karen.

This novel talks about big issues – the role of science, our treatment of animals, the accuracy of memory, the responsibilities of parenthood, the importance of friends, of the critical role of siblings and our shared experiences growing up. I’m now going to re-read it – and I recommend you do too.

 

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