The subject of Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, one of the six to be shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, is as extraordinary as its title. But the fact that she is able to keep it under wraps for the first 80-odd pages is perhaps an even greater achievement—and one that sets up a daunting challenge before a reviewer of the book.

It may seem to be a near impossible task to convey the complexity and enormity of the tragedy at the heart of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which appeared in the US last year, without giving away the crux of the plot. “To experience this novel exactly as the author intended, a reader should avoid the flap copy and everything else written about it. Including this review," novelist Barbara Kingsolver had advised in her review in The New York Times. Ironically, defeated by the novel’s brilliance, or maybe in a bid to prove herself true, she had not only gone on to reveal the spoiler but also every other detail that adds mystery and substance to the plot (we shall desist from following her example).

At its most basic, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of the sudden disintegration of an American family caused by a bizarre social experiment it decides to participate in in the 1970s. Told in the voice of Rosemary Cooke, it combines the intimate charge of a memoir with the precision of scientific investigation to come up with a plot that pushes the reader to reckon with the first principles of what it means to be a human being.

The novel opens with Rosemary, or Rosie as she is known among her friends and family, getting into trouble with the law in spite of herself. One day when Harlow, a self-styled Bohemian girl high on substances and quick to tempers, flares up in the college canteen and wreaks havoc, Rosie finds herself unable to stop imitating Harlow’s delinquent outburst. Her brief brush with the police and uneasy friendship with Harlow take Rosie back to her childhood, especially to the juvenile tics she thought she had conquered years ago. But, to her horror, Rosie starts feeling a near-forgotten desire to talk incessantly welling up within her uncontrollably—along with other worrying habits such as twitching, scratching herself, and pulling out her hair in anxiety.

These symptoms, we go on to discover, are all related to Rosie’s early trauma of separation from her sister Fern, who was adopted by her family when both of them were just a few months old. If five-year-old Rosie finds it hard to understand the reason behind her parents’ decision to part her from her near-twin, her brother Lowell, a few years older than both of them, is filled with rage and grief.

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves: Hachette India, 323 pages, Rs 499
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves: Hachette India, 323 pages, Rs 499

Fowler’s great gift is suspense. Not only does she hold back the key that unlocks the plot, but she also does not waste a chance to tease and frustrate the reader. She delays Rosie’s reunion with Lowell, and eventually with Fern, by introducing sub-plots, including the loss of a suitcase and a ventriloquist’s doll. In spite of the overwhelming emotional energy of her plot, Fowler also never loses sight of the scientific premise of her novel. It is this ability to find a balance between feelings and reason that allows her to end the novel on a note of forgiveness and reconciliation, where there was no hope of any.

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