Book review: Hard hearts sure to break

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Nicky Pellegrino finds the powerful prose in this tragic saga spellbinding.

Karen Joy Fowler has a surprise in store for you.
Karen Joy Fowler has a surprise in store for you.

When I review a book I'm always careful not to give away the ending. The tricky thing about Karen Joy Fowler's brilliant new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent's Tail), is that the beginning of the story is the part it's important not to ruin. That's where you'll find the big surprise, the one on which the rest of the tale turns.

To write about this book without revealing too much and ruining its impact involves keeping pretty cryptic. If you hate spoilers then steer clear of almost everything you'll find on the internet about it, including interviews with the author.

I'm helped by the fact that Fowler starts the story in the middle. It's the winter of 1996 and Rosemary Cooke is in her fifth year at the University of California and still no closer to graduating, much to the annoyance of her parents.

Then one lunchtime in the school cafeteria she becomes caught up in a messy fight between a girlfriend and boyfriend. Food is spilled, dishes shattered, things are thrown.

The campus cops arrive and mistakenly take Rosemary to the county jail, as well as the tantrum-prone girlfriend Harlow.

There is a reason that Rosemary finds herself drawn to chaotic, impulsive Harlow even though she's clearly not great friend material. It's linked to the reason she avoids her psychologist father and emotionally fragile mother, although as a result of the jail incident she has to agree to go home to Indiana and be with them for Thanksgiving.

The Cookes are a fractured family. Rosemary's brother and sister are both missing and she blames her parents for it. But they don't talk about the past. In particular they avoid discussing the summer when Rosemary was 5 and was sent to live with her grandparents without warning or explanation. And certainly no one ever mentions her beloved sister, Fern, who vanished at exactly the same time.

Around a quarter of the way into the story, Rosemary explains who Fern was and why she was different. That's the bit I'm not going to spoil. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a heartbreaker of a novel. It's about memories and the tricks they play on us; the way we revise and repress them, their power and unreliability, their play on the present. It's about the nature of family and love, the arrogance and wonder of humanity and how far we'll go in the quest for knowledge; it's about being different.

The story is partly based on fact, although Rosemary is fictional. I found it sizzling with smarts and very funny but at the same time deeply tragic. You'd need to have a hard heart not to feel it shattering as piece by piece Rosemary puts together the events that have defined her life.

US writer Fowler is known for the best-selling The Jane Austen Book Club. This is the first of her novels I've read. One thing I can safely reveal is that it won't be the last.

- Herald on Sunday

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