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Originally published Sunday, June 2, 2013 at 5:49 AM

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Karen Joy Fowler’s novel of a very complicated family

Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” looks at the implications of some very tricky family relationships. Fowler appears Tuesday, June 4, at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Karen Joy Fowler /Hedgebrook 25th Anniversary

Karen Joy Fowler will appear with author Ruth Ozeki at 7 p.m. Tuesday as part of a celebration of the Hedgebrook writing retreat’s 25th anniversary. At The Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle, free (206-386-4636 or spl.org).

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‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’

by Karen Joy Fowler

Marian Wood/Putnam, 310 pp., $26.95

Cagey, feisty, funny and philosophical, Karen Joy Fowler’s sixth novel slyly establishes much of its inner essence — to do with the damaged dynamics of its narrator’s family — before it spells out certain crucial details of its plot.

And that makes it tricky to review.

Fowler does drop a hint on what the novel is “about” by prefacing her tale with some lines from Franz Kafka’s short story, “A Report for an Academy.” That epigraph is worth quoting in full:

“Your experience as apes, gentlemen — to the extent that you have something of that sort behind you — cannot be more distant from you than mine is from me. But it tickles at the heels of everyone who walks here on earth, the small chimpanzee as well as the great Achilles.”

The book’s dust-jacket image also yields a clue to a key ingredient of the novel’s narrative. But what grabs you from the start is the voice of its narrator, Rosemary Cooke.

“Those who know me now will be surprised to learn I was a great talker as a child,” she remarks on the opening page of “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.”

The reasons for her silence have to do with her family back in Indiana. Rosemary, in 1996, has put considerable distance between herself and her parents by attending college in California. She would dearly love to reconnect with her brother Lowell (“He was so nice, it hurt to watch”) and her sister Fern (“my twin, my fun-house mirror, my whirlwind other half”).

But the prospects of that happening are dim. As she explains: “Ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.”

Opening the action in 1996 means starting “in the middle of my story,” according to Rosemary, and the deeper she goes into her tale, the more fluidly the book becomes a juggling of flashbacks, flash-forwards and careful avoidances of germane information.

Eventually, some startling facts emerge. Fern disappeared when she was five. Lowell is on the FBI’s radar as a suspect in Animal Liberation Front activity. Rosemary’s mother has, at times, suffered total nervous breakdowns in the wake of these events. And her husband, hitting the bottle heavily, is given to damning pronouncements on the supposed “rationality” of the human race.

“Emotion and instinct were the basis of all our decisions, our action, everything we valued, the way we saw the world,” he declares. “Reason and rationality were a thin coat of paint on a ragged surface.”

Just look at the U.S. Congress, he adds. The only way to make sense of its proceedings is to view it as “a two-hundred-year-long-primate study.”

Fowler’s interests here are in what sets humans apart from their fellow primates. Cognitive, language and memory skills all come into playful question.

But the heart of the novel — and it has a big, warm, loudly beating heart throughout — is in its gradually pieced-together tale of family togetherness, disruption and reconciliation.

“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is Fowler at her best, mixing cerebral and emotional appeal together in an utterly captivating manner.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

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