I’m going to stick a really big disclaimer on this post and that is, if you’re planning to read this book in the future or even just think it might be something that’ll interest you, do not settle in. I can tell you from the outset, spoiler-free, that this book is so unique and, I’d say, best enjoyed if you go in completely blind as I did.
I really, really enjoyed this book. It has a hell of a lot of character and I got out of it exactly what I was expecting (and more!) – a powerful novel focused on the relationship between siblings in a dysfunctional family. Because the way I usually review books is tired and without much direction, I’m going to be snagging some of the discussion qs from the back of the book, because I’ve found a few that pick out my favourite aspects of this read.
Before we get stuck in, I suppose I’d better summarise the story briefly. We meet Rosemary, an introverted student, as she unexpectedly becomes part of a scuffle in the college canteen. It becomes apparent, fairly early on, that things haven’t always been this way – now choosing to stay silent, Rosemary was once a lively, brash, chatterbox child. She hasn’t been the same since the disappearance of her crazy twin sister Fern. Not only that, but it’s been ten years since her brother Lowell took off, sending only unsigned postcards in his wake.
So. This book. This book this book this book!
“It’s not until page 77 that we discover Fern is a chimpanzee. Rosemary’s keen to control the way the reader is introduced to certain ideas, in this case so she can establish Fern as her sister and not an animal. Did that work for you?”
For me, this was my favourite aspect of my whole reading experience. I had absolutely no idea that Fern was anything but a human twin until this point. I was so shocked! I was thoroughly controlled. If Fern had been introdued as a chimpanzee from the offset, I’m sure this would create some sort of emotional barrier between the reader and the sisters. As it is, in Rosemary’s words it is evident that their relationship runs much deeper than family pet and child. Following Fern’s departure, this is made all the more clear when Rosemary says it was easier for her brother and parents to adjust as they had a life before Fern, whereas Rosemary knew no different to the bond she shared with her. (such a bad paraphrase if I can find the quote from the book I’ll add it agh)
“Does the ending mean Rosemary has atoned for her earlier sins? Does she need to?”
The tone of the ending was absolutely perfect. The style in which the whole novel is delivered – piece by piece, non-chronologically – reflects her family’s imperfect nature. By no means is Rosemary ‘in the clear’, so to speak, and throughout the novel very few loose ends are tied and moments of clarity reached. Where Rosemary ends her story, her brother Lowell is still on the run, and there’s still deep-rooted, unsolved resentment between the human children and their parents. The ending scene is placed as a moment of calm amongst the chaos. We see Rosemary and Fern’s reunion after 22 years as a simple, natural exchange, and yet it’s such a significant moment in their relationship that I did tear up on the train reading it (yes, really.) Atonement does not seem necessary. The Cookes have a long way to go, but the love between Fern and Rosemary is unconditional.
The non-chronological narrative Rosemary uses in telling her story deserves a nod of its own, I think. Many features of this story – Fern being a chimpanzee, the parents using their children for a psychological experiment, even Rosemary’s tendancy to overshare as a child – inevitably would rouse certain judgements in the reader. By telling the story in such a roundabout way, we are able to empathize more closely with Rosemary by learning more about her as a person, thus understanding her on a personal level. Let’s face it, if you knew somebody who’d been raised to believe a chimpanzee was her sister and nothing else about her, you’d instantly be thinking that she’s a bit cookoo.
As Rosemary says, in every ‘human being’, the ‘being’ is much more important than the ‘human’.