The happening and telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories, simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An off-told story is like a photograph in a family album. Eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.
I unfortunately need to start this review with a spoiler warning. This is a book that is almost impossible to discuss without giving away one of the key plot points and since I got to enjoy the moment of discovery on the page as it was meant to be, I would hate to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t picked up this wonderful book! If you don’t want it to be spoiled, look away this instance!
Rosemary is our narrator, the daughter of academics, sister of Lowell and Fern. Her whole life was shaped by the removal of Fern when they were six. They were not just sisters, they were twins; inseparable. Fern is fun and daring and enthusiastically wonderful, Rosemary is a motormouth, always talking. It isn’t until she loses her sister, sent away for a week at her grandparents, returning to find Fern gone, gone, gone with no explanation, that Rosemary becomes silent. She is tormented, afraid. Her older brother Lowell soon leaves too, wanted for increasingly criminal acts by the FBI. Rosemary presents as a lonely and confused adult, taking us back to her childhood to try and understand how she ended up here. Rosemary tries to be normal, but what normalcy she can muster is shattered as her brother comes in and out of her life and her family shatters.
You spend a fair chunk of the book uncertain of what is happening, there’s a key character who is discussed but not explained and the tension builds. When you think you can take it no longer, we find out the truth… Rosemary’s sister Fern is a chimpanzee. The guilt, confusion, shame, the darkness surrounding what happened to Fern, and by extension Rosemary, suddenly makes sense.
The revelation is not a gimmick, it’s not used lightly nor is the reality of the situation glossed over. The book isn’t preachy, but it will make you think. It is emotive, it tells a story that considers issues, but it does so in a way that sits alongside tales of Madame Defarge, the puppet and drunken escapades with sort-of friend Harlow. The story is poignant, heart-breaking, intense. Rosemary struggles with her identity, Lowell reclaims his by force, Fern loses hers and the reader is forced to face the human condition.
I can say with absolute honesty that I felt more for Fern than I have for human characters in other novels. It was something about her spirit, wild enthusiasm, the joy she had, and how quickly she could have it taken from her. Rosemary’s mother said she wanted to give her an extraordinary life, and Fern was part of that vision. It is apt that she seems to spend so much of her life atoning for what she did to her daughters.
This was without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’d love to know what you think of it!
Book Conversation Points:
How do you feel about the actions of 6 year old Rosemary? Do you blame her?
What about Rosemary’s parents?
Do you think Lowell’s subsequent crime spree is justified?
How do you feel about animal rights after reading ‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’?
Join us next month for The Rosie Effect, book two in the series by Graeme Simsion.