Project Fern

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The cover of this has a stylised picture of a tree with what looks like a small chimpanzee dangling from a bottom branch with one arm, while the frontispiece quote is from Franz Kafka’s short story ‘A Report for an Academy’ (sometimes translated as ‘A Report to an Academy’). Published in 1917, it tells how a monkey called Red Peter effects a human transformation.

So the central reveal of Fowler’s novel, in Chapter Five of Part One, is not that unexpected. It certainly will not spoil the novel if you know what it is about.

Up to that point I knew that something was slightly off kilter with the main narrator, Rosemary, but I was taken quite by surprise as to exactly what that ‘something’ is, as I believe you will too if you have not read it and plan to do so.

Having finished the book, I am in two minds about the ‘big reveal’. I think a far more radical approach would have been to attempt a second-person narration from the viewpoint of the other sister, but I am unsure of the technical feasibility of this.

The main problem with the ‘big reveal’ is that the novel essentially scales down from this point on, folding out the rest of the story like origami, instead of building to a conventional narrative close.

At one point Fowler says that it is not enough to feel empathy for animals in captivity, whether in zoos or for scientific and medical research. One has to do something about it, like the brother does in the novel.

I do feel though that the author kind of shirks this viewpoint, and that the novel is not nearly as radical or angry as it could have been. Instead it retreads quite a familiar story, but is not nearly as affecting or as effective as the Project Nim movie, for example.

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