Written by Karen Joy Fowler.
Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.
This book interested me from the get go, why wouldn’t it? Not only does it have a pretty memorable title, but the blurb is intriguing:
“What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment?”
“Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find fern gone.”
Blimey. On first impressions, this seems like it has the potential to be a chilling thriller of the highest calibre. A brilliant mystery.
Customers kept on bounding into the store shortly after the book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, asking if any of us had read it. We hadn’t. Aghast, they would say that it was absolutely vital for one of us to read it. They would say that it was exceptional, extraordinary, unique and utterly unforgettable.
They were right, it was unforgettable. I actually read this controversial novel a year ago, and I certainly haven’t forgotten one thing about it. But that isn’t to say I enjoyed it.
If truth be told, I just didn’t get it.
I still don’t.
I rarely genuinely struggle through a novel, but to me this short tale was far too much hard work for very little reward. I disliked it from the get-go, as Fowler’s writing style is filled with modern slang and lots of Americanisms that I found made the writing seem lazy. It was as if she was trying to sound “cool” and modern, but it grated on me. There were basic grammatical errors that got under my skin. On top of that, I disliked the way in which it was told from Rosemary’s perspective. Now, before you think to “Whoa! A bookseller hating first person perspectives? Surely not! That writes off so many wonderful novels” – I like first person writing as a general rule, but not when it is done in such a lazy way.
A book I reviewed a short while ago- My Sunshine Away- was told in the first person, if you recall, and I adored it. First person writing is good when it is done slyly. When, even though you have access to the characters thoughts and feelings, you are still left guessing. Fowler didn’t give me that. She literally had Rosemary listing her feelings at one point in the novel- the character shouldn’t just tell the reader how they feel (unless it is done very, very well), but the reader should sense it from what else the character is saying.
“I felt guilty because I had owned the journals less than a day and already lost them…Mostly I felt tired.”
I hated Rosemary. I found her obnoxious and self-righteous and oh, so irritating. To dislike the protagonist in a story is unpleasant enough, but I didn’t relate or empathise with any of the background characters either. The Cooke parents have far too many flaws to list, Lowell is unstable, sanctimonious and thoughtless. Fern’s only friend mentioned, Harlow, is a train-wreck.
Now, I can’t talk about this book without mentioning the very large plot twist. To give Fowler credit, it is one of the most surprising plot twists I have ever read. I never saw it coming, as much as I would like to say that I did. Looking back, there are hints at it, but it was done so subtly that I would not have guessed it.
If you don’t want the twist spoilt for you, you had probably look away now.
Throughout the book Fern’s departure is described as extremely traumatic, and Rosemary has clearly tried to bury the memories of why Fern left deep inside her mind.
While reading, ideas spun through my mind. What happened to Fern? It is mentioned that Rosemary’s father used the girls as an experiment. Did something go wrong and Fern died as a result? Or had to be thereafter taken care of in a home? Did Rosemary harm Fern? Did one of the research students that lived with the family?
As it turns out, Fern is a chimp.
Rosemary’s father convinced her mother to bring up Fern alongside Rosemary, treating them exactly the same in order to access their development and whether or not Nature or Nurture has the greater effect on behaviour.
Once this bizarre revelation takes place, we are given more details on Rosemary’s upbringing. Rosemary explains some of the experiments she had to take part in a she grew up. At times it becomes disturbing, as you see the extent to which Rosemary and Fern were treated as equals.
I’ll give Fowler this as well- the book certainly taught me an awful lot about animal rights. As the book continues you discover that Lowell, Rosemary’s older brother, is an animal rights activist and as such was often in hiding after taking drastic measures to set lab animals free or destroy the bases where they would be tested. When Rosemary comes back into contact with him, she learns about the conditions in which Fern now lives and starts to sympathise with Lowell’s behaviour. Added to this is an extreme sense of guilt. We know from early on in the novel that Rosemary played a part in Fern being sent away, but it isn’t until much later on in the book that we see how large a part it was.
Rosemary had found kittens. Fern had been playing with them, and had hurt one of them, which upset Rosemary. Rosemary ended up telling her mother that she was scared of Fern, and that is what got her sent away. Rosemary’s memory is hazy when it comes to the facts of whether or not she made up the story about Fern killing the kitten. She claims that Lowell thought she had made it up, as there was no dead cat to be found.
This section of the book is by far the most well-written. The unsure nature of Rosemary’s memory and the guilt she feels either way makes it an emotional and haunting read. It certainly made the rest of the book come to life a little.
But I’m afraid even this wonderfully creepy section does not save the book in my eyes as, sadly, it is over in a few short pages. After this deeper look into Rosemary’s past, her guilt and how it has effected the way in which her memories have formed, the story goes on in a fairly predictable manner.
They search for Fern, and locate her at a nearby lab. They want to save her and put her into better care. They manage to. They visit her often.
The only other positive about the plot was that, while Rosemary and her mother visit Fern on a regular basis at the end of the story, it is made clear that they cannot tell whether or not Fern recognises them, or remembers any of the events from their lives together, and this I found truly heartbreaking. Not the fact that she may remember the pain of being forced to leave them, and not the fact that she may not remember, but the fact that they will never know. To feel as if you have a connection with another living being, and to be unsure as to whether or not they feel this connection too, it heart-wrenching. As is often the hardest part, it is the characters not knowing which is the saddest.
All in all, I felt very disappointed with this book, given the hype that surrounded it being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. For so many people to recommend it to me, I thought it was bound to be one for the record books, one for my list of top reads, one I would recommend to everyone and anyone. Maybe I am genuinely just missing something. Maybe there is some part of it I missed, some secret aspect I didn’t quite catch.
One thing I will say about this book is that it most definitely sparks debate, so its controversial nature and themes make it the perfect Book Club read. If you have a book club, suggest this, it will definitely get people talking.