There are books that tell stories that could have happened. And then there are books that make you yearn that the story they tell, however fantastic, had in fact happened — as if without it, without these particular events and without this human being who’d experienced them and now tells her tale, there is something amiss in the world. The only disbelief you suspend is the one where you can’t believe you’ll never meet this character in your real life.
Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel is one of such books. Written as a memoir and filled with references to actual events and facts, the story balances on the verge of “happened” just as the narrator, Rosemary, balances on the verge of a grand disclosure that will expose her as she is, with all her idiosyncrasies, to the whole world.
In a nutshell, the novel imagines the fate of one of the experiments actually performed around nineteen seventies (if I am not mistaken) in the US, and pursuing comparative analysis of human and primate development. In such an experiment, a human and an ape infant are reared together from the very early age on, they are treated in the same way, as if both are human; they know each other intimately, they communicate with each other using sign language. It is researchers’ hypothesis that the ape child may be advanced, behaviorally, closer to the level of a human child. It was the actual outcome, at least in some cases, that the human child began to acquire behavioral traits more reminiscent of an ape. Rosemary Cooke, the heroine and the narrator of the novel is one of such children. She spent the first five years of her life with a sister who happened to be a chimpanzee.
In the novel, Rosemary, now a grownup, recalls events of her childhood and early adulthood and runs a tally of what exactly is different about her, what odd traits have stayed with her, indelible, to make everyone she meets instantly feel she is different from normal humans. Is it her manner of speaking? Her altered perception of personal space? The best thing about this self-analysis is that it is as thorough as it is incomplete. Our most innate, built-in traits are the ones we are blind to — precisely because they are so innate to us. Thus, this reader wonders what other traits and issues are there, the ones Rosemary does not see about herself. She is a wonderfully, disconcertingly, unsettlingly unreliable narrator who leaves an imaginative reader plenty of unlit room in which to start seeing spooky shadows.
Most importantly, by recalling her life’s story, Rosemary works up courage to expose her greatest secret, something that has cracked her and her whole family’s life into two pieces — the Before and the After. The story of Rosemary’s sister’s disappearance. Lest I make a spoiler, let me say only this — in my personal opinion, this is a story of sibling rivalry between two little girls. Both girls are animals, one human, another — non-human. Both girls are culpable in what had happened. Both have good and bad in them.
The book closes leaving one surprised and disturbed by something she did not know and making one want to “read up”, to find out more in witness testimonies, documentaries, to peer behind the seemingly familiar scenes. But most of all —to keep looking for Rosemary Cooke on the web, to search for her in a sea of faces in an airport, a shopping mall. She has to be there, hasn’t she?