The award for the best title of 2014 has to go to Karen Joy Fowler, don’t we think? It is the reason I even gave this a second glance, and then the deliciously cryptic description hooked me right in. In reviewing this wonderful book, I’m likely going to get spoiler happy, so if you don’t know the big reveal of the novel and don’t want to before you pick it up, stop reading now. Still here? Well ok then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. When she was a child, she never shut up, now she’s in college, she rarely speaks. Her parents are not the people they used to be, and her brother is on the run from the FBI. And Rosemary’s sister, Fern? Well, she’s the reason this once happy family has folded in on itself, but not for the reasons you would think. Ok, here come the spoilers. Rosemary’s father was a professor at their local university and he wanted to study the effects of raising a chimp in a human environment. Fern is the chimp, very close in age to Rosemary, and raised in tandem with her. I guess the cover does make it relatively obvious as well, but whatever. The experiment, monitored by Daddy Cooke’s grad students lasts just five years before it all goes Very Wrong Indeed and Fern is taken away from the family environment. The Cooke siblings are told she’s gone to live on a farm.
Uncovering the truth of Fern’s fate is what puts Rosemary’s brother Lowell on the FBI’s radar. Rosemary is in college, trying to forget about Fern and move on with her life, but being reminded that she is also Chimp Girl in a variety of unexpected ways. She has a destructive friendship with the type of girl who seems to be a staple in all campus novels, wild, crazy and never telling a single truth about herself. But when Lowell reappears and starts to help Rosemary remember exactly what happened to end their joyful half decade with Fern, her world starts to slowly spin off its axis.
To keep the reader on their toes and to hide the reveal about Fern for as long as the narrative can really take it, Fowler starts in the middle of the story. It works its way back to the beginning before looping back to the end. Told in the first person, each section jumps around with Rosemary’s remembrances (see what Fowler did there?). The way she writes about Fern and their relationship is really tender and beautiful. It’s clear that Fern was loved by the Cooke family and the grad students, and Fowler makes her a fully realised character. It makes the circumstances that unravelled the happy family life all the more shocking when you finally get to them as well.
It’s not really a surprise that Fowler has found herself on the Booker Prize longlist in the first year that it’s open to US authors. It’s a brilliantly crafted and beautifully written work that provokes a reaction from the reader. Even I, who remain stoically unmoved by the Planet of the Apes films, adored Fern and cared about her fate. The biggest surprise for me is that Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club which I was intrigued about reading until roughly 5 minutes into the film. It just makes the sheer brilliance of this book all the more unexpected.
Don’t forget to check this review out over on The Cannonball Read, along with all the other reviews from the Cannonball Readers.