Tag Archives: Maria Semple

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It’s nearly time for the media go wild about the Man Booker Prize. The shortlist will be announced on 9th September and the winner on 14th October. Already controversy is brewing. There has been gender-talk. Only three books by women were on the longlist of ten:

  • 122 Man Booker 2O14How to be both by Ali Smith
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
  • We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Only two of the six judges were women.

And there has been discussion about national writing, since the prize was opened this year to all novels published in English. Have we been swamped by American fiction? Is British fiction lacking in energy as AS Byatt a Guardian piece called Is British fiction in crisis? A careful reading of her comments suggests that she was criticizing the publishers for failing to find anything exciting to publish, latching on to successful self-published titles instead. I doubt whether it even meaningful to talk about national fiction? I’m going to leave that discussion for a later post.

122 We are allNow on with my thoughts about one of long-listed book by a female, American writer. I’ll start with a ‘spoiler alert’. There is an important plot element that is not confirmed until a quarter of the way through the novel. I don’t believe it will spoil your enjoyment of the novel if you read on. But I have warned you. Come back later if you prefer!

The Narrator, Rosemary, is a sharp young American, who tells us early on that she has lost both her sister, Fern, and her brother, Lowell. Their disappearance is linked. You don’t learn until p 77 that Fern is a chimpanzee, introduced into the family as part of a psychology experiment in the 1960s. The brother leaves to join animal right demonstrators. The FBI are looking for him.

While Fern is with them (about 5 years) Rosemary and her family are subject to observation, to the presence of grad students, to theorising, to comparisons (as Fern and Rosemary are the same age). But when Fern is sent away Rosemary learns to keep quiet about all that, especially as her mother more or less has a nervous breakdown.

As soon as she learned to talk Rose never shut up. People always said to her to talk less. But through the family events she has learned to hide anything of significance. Here is the paragraph after Rose, now 15 years old, has heard where Fern went, for the first time in nearly ten years.

At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back after you have gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action. I’d come to silence hard, but at fifteen I was a true believer. (p126)

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan – from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

The action picks up when Rose goes to university in Davis, California, where her brother was last seen. She learns that Fern has been kept in a cage since she left them, and has grieved as much as she has because she was not able to integrate well with other chimps.

The action of the novel follows Rose as she gradually she makes some kind of sense and accommodation to all this family stuff. It provides an interesting exploration of the nature of animal and human-animal communication, and of human-human communication. You can be subjected to a battery of tests but miss the point, about the importance of love for another.

The voice of the narrator is feisty, clever, self-deprecating, like Bee in Where’d you go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple). Some of the scenes are hilarious (such as the mayhem in the cafeteria in the first chapter) and some of the characters are filmic (Ezra, the apartment block manager with aspirations, like the janitor from Scrubs, and Harlow who spreads chaos everywhere). But much of the wiseacre script is designed to reveal the heart of this book at a slow pace, and to show the reader that Rose is a girl who is struggling with facing the truth.

Here’s an example of Karen Joy Fowler’s style in the novel. Rose’s suitcase went missing on her flight from back from her parents’ home in Indiana. The airline delivers the wrong one. It’s all part of the complicated plot, because the suitcase contains … well never mind.

I was just about to call the airlines yet again, demand that they produce my real suitcase and take the pretender away, when Harlow showed up with a different idea. Harlow’s different idea was to pick the lock on the suitcase we did have, open it, and see what was inside. We would not take the stuff. That went without saying. But it was inconceivable to her that we’d return the case without even looking. Who knew what a strange case from Indiana (assuming it had come from Indiana) might contain. Gold Doubloons. A heroin-stuffed doll. Polaroids of some Midwestern city council in flagrante. Apple butter.

Wasn’t I curious? Where was my sense of adventure? (p 142)

In this passage we can see how Harlow and Rose are such different characters, and how Rose’s caution contrasts with Harlow’s rashness. You can hear the conversation between them as they consider the possibilities of the suitcase. And you see that despite her dangerous attitude, Harlow is on the side of the good people. And you can enjoy the list of possible contents. And what is revealed is even more imaginative, and you will have to read the book to find out what it is, and the part it plays. (You see how I have picked up the habit of hiding things from Rose?)

122 JA Book ClubI was surprised to learn that Karen Joy Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. That was a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’, which I enjoyed. We are all completely beside ourselves is on a different level. I found myself admiring the research undertaken, (not just into primate material, but also about the context in which those experiments took place) as well as the development of the plot and the characters.

You can find an interview with Karen Joy Fowler on the Man Booker Prize 2014 website.

Have you read this? What were your reactions? Do you think it should be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Please comment below.

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013) published by Serpent’s Tail; Longlisted for Man Booker Prize 2014; Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction


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Let us now praise the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Let us now praise the institution that this year was called The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve just finished reading all six shortlisted novels. They were all good, providing interesting subject matter, innovation and excellent writing. Six great reads! Here’s a reminder of the shortlist.

Hilary Mantel Bring up the Bodies

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

AM Homes May we be forgiven

Zadie Smith NW

Maria Semple Where’d you go Bernadette

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

34 AM Holmes

I don’t believe it makes much difference to women’s fiction who won: it was AM Holmes. And whoever wins, I like a literary event that foregrounds women writers. With some women writers apparently sweeping all before them (think Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling) it has been questioned whether we still need a prize for fiction by women. I wont repeat the arguments so well made by Danuta Kean in Why We Need The Women’s Prize, except to notice once again that fiction by women is disadvantaged in the review pages of literary journals and newspapers. Fewer books by women than by men are reviewed. Not surprisingly there are also fewer women reviewers.

Next year the prize will be sponsored by Baileys. Thanks to those who kept the prize afloat while a replacement sponsor was sought. Kate Mosse was awarded a well-deserved OBE in the Birthday Honours, for services to literature. She was one of the founders of the prize and chairs the board

Here are my brief reviews of the two shortlisted novels that I read most recently.


Maria Semple Where’d you go, Bernadette?

A racy read, almost a romp through contemporary electronic or wired life, set in Seattle, complete with Microsoft, TED talks, and high pressure sales ideas to ‘up-class’ the local school.

Bee is 15 (although she actually seemed much younger to me, more like 12 – no adolescent angst), and the only child of two high achieving parents. Her father Elgie is a top thinker with Microsoft, and her mother, Bernadette was once a cutting edge architect. Both parents come croppers – Bernadette through experiencing failure to preserve her twenty-mile house (a nice eco idea) and her husband by being immersed in MS before he finds his project is expendable.

The novel is the record of the disappearance of Bernadette, after some high stress middle class rage between her, her fellow Moms at Bee’s school, and her husband. Some of the plot is a little far fetched, but enjoyable for all that: eg a trip to Antarctica, the very handy on-line assistant, supposedly in India, who arranges every detail of the trip, the FBI investigation and the psychologist’s intervention.

Bee, of course, is high performing and it is she who presents the fast-paced narrative through the documentary evidence, itself saying something about the trail our lives leave: emails, letters, electronic records, faxes etc. When Bernadette wants to disappear she has to find a way to achieve it outside the electronic records. The novel concludes with a letter from Bernadette, sent via snail mail, which happily brings the family back together. The father never quite emerges as a rounded character, but comes good in the end. I wonder if this novel would also work as YA fiction?

Behind all this action are themes about the effects of the internet on our lives, how we can escape or use it, exploit it or be abused by it.

34 Life after Life

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

The device of this novel is that our heroine Ursula lives her life multiple times. There are a number of logical difficulties with this: are we to consider that this happens to everyone, or just her? Does Ursula have some special destiny, and if so what? Is this device to show that small things can lead a life along paths that are horrendous, and can the same be said of missed opportunities? So is it the case that when she failed to deny the bullying American boy a kiss it leads to rape, pregnancy, life-threatening abortion and finally death at the hands of an abusive husband thereby missing her opportunity to kill Hitler in the early ‘30s?

Ursula is born in 1910 to well-to-do parents, her father a banker, her mother a rather free spirit. She dies, nearly dies and then survives again and again. She has brothers and sisters, lovers, two husbands, servants, a rather wild aunt, and other friends who move in and out of her lives, survive or don’t survive. They experience European twentieth century history: the First World War, influenza epidemic, inter-war years, the second world war. The scenes in blitzed London are especially vivid – Ursula is an ARP warden. In another life she marries a German and survives in Berlin until the final days of the war, fearful of the prospect of Russian liberation.

So many lives mean so many deaths, so it is quite a stressful book. The deaths are Ursula’s but also her father’s, mother’s, cousin’s and just about every character at some time or other. It is an interesting way of writing a family saga, revealing different things about the people in every life.

The novel forces us to ask about the relationship between fate and freewill, and if it is possible to learn from lives we never knew we had, whether individual people really influence history. If Cleopatra’s nose had been a millimetre longer would the course of world history have been different? Discuss.

But in the end, can there be an end? Does she get her life right somehow, and if so, what is it that makes it right? Why would it ever stop, this succession of lives, there would always be another one. Ursula herself asks,

What had the Fuhrer’s apprenticeship for greatness been? Eva [Braun] shrugged, she didn’t know. “He’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.” No, thought Ursula, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become. (p332)

Now is that true, that we can choose who or what we become?


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