Here’s an excerpt from Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. As a reminder, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award.
As part of leaving Bloomington for college and my brand new start, I’d made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her. If anyone asked about my family, I admitted to two parents, still married, and one brother, older, who traveled a lot. Not mentioning Fern was first a decision, and later a habit, hard and painful even now to break. Even now, way off in 2012, I can’t abide someone else bringing her up. I have to ease into it. I have to choose my moment.
Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply — her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers. But I don’t remember her fully, not the way Lowell does.
Lowell is my brother’s real name. Our parents met at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona at a high school summer science camp. “I’d come to see the heavens,” our father always said. “But the stars were in her eyes,” a line that used to please and embarrass me in equal measure. Young geeks in love.
I would think better of myself now if, like Lowell, I’d been angry about Fern’s disappearance, but it seemed too dangerous just then to be mad at our parents and I was frightened instead. There was also a part of me relieved, and powerfully, shamefully so, to be the one kept and not the one given away. Whenever I remember this, I try to also remember that I was only five years old. I’d like to be fair here, even to myself. It would be nice to get all the way to forgiveness, though I haven’t managed it yet and don’t know that I ever will. Or ever should.
Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon. Before, I had a sister. After, none.
Before, the more I talked, the happier our parents seemed. After, they joined the rest of the world in asking me to be quiet. I finally became so. But not for quite some time and not because I was asked.
Before, my brother was part of the family. After, he was just killing time until he could be shed of us.
Before, many things that happened are missing in my memory or else stripped-down, condensed to their essentials like fairy tales. Once upon a time there was a house with an apple tree in the yard and a creek and a moon-eyed cat. After, for a period of several months, I seem to remember a lot and much of it with a suspiciously well-lit clarity. Take any memory from my early childhood and I can tell you instantly whether it happened while we still had Fern or after she’d gone. I can do this because I remember which me was there. The me with Fern or the me without? Two entirely different people.
Still, there are reasons for suspicion. I was only five. How is it possible that I remember, as I seem to, a handful of conversations word for word, the exact song on the radio, the particular clothes I was wearing? Why are there so many scenes I remember from impossible vantage points, so many things I picture from above, as if I’d climbed the curtains and was looking down on my family? And why is there one thing that I remember distinctly, living color and surround-sound, but believe with all my heart never occurred? Bookmark that thought. We’ll come back to it later.
I remember often being told to be quiet, but I seldom remember what I was saying at the time. As I recount things, this lacuna may give you the erroneous impression that I already wasn’t talking much. Please assume that I am talking continuously in all the scenes that follow until I tell you that I’m not.
Our parents, on the other hand, had shut their mouths and the rest of my childhood took place in that odd silence. They never reminisced about the time they had to drive halfway back to Indianapolis because I’d left Dexter Poindexter, my terry-cloth penguin (threadbare, ravaged by love – as who amongst us is not) in a gas station restroom, although they often talk about the time our friend Marjorie Weaver left her mother-in-law in the exact same place. Better story, I grant you.
I know from Grandma Fredericka, and not our parents, that I once went missing for long enough that the police were called and it turned out I’d tailed Santa Claus out of a department store and into a tobacco shop where he was buying cigars and he gave me the ring off one, so the police being called was just an added bonus on what must have already been a pretty good day.
I know from Grandma Donna, and not our parents, that I once buried a dime in some cake batter as a surprise and one of the graduate students chipped her tooth on it and everybody thought Fern had done it, until I spoke up, so brave and honest. Not to mention generous since the dime had been my own.
So who knows what revelries, what romps my memories have taken with so little corroboration to restrain them? If you don’t count the taunting at school, then the only people who talked much about Fern were my Grandma Donna, until Mom made her stop, and my brother Lowell, until he left us. Each had too obvious an agenda to be reliable – Grandma wishing to shield our mother from any share of blame, Lowell stropping his stories into knives.
Once upon a time there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same.