An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin
Than these two creatures.
I can’t say too much about “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”, as it is almost impossible to do so without giving away the twist. What I can say, though, is that this is one of the few novels I can think of which deals head-on with the separation of siblings. So often stories of loss focus on romance – but the ache of being kept apart from a sibling creates its own, unique kind of grief. I remember being struck by “The Mill on the Floss” when I first read it many years ago for the same reason – the idea of being at odds with my brother, or not knowing where he was, filled me with alarm.
That is in large part why I love “Twelfth Night” so much – because underpinning the farcical comedy are two stories of sibling loss. Olivia is grieving for her brother at the beginning of the play, and Viola’s line, “And what should I do in Illyria? My brother, he is in Elysium,” hauntingly sums up her confusion and deep sense of bereavement. It is telling that Viola and Sebastian are not permitted to embrace when they eventually find one another at the end – not until I am restored to my woman’s clothes, Viola says; Shakespeare’s twins, once torn asunder, are never fully reunited. Instead they become Olivia’s husband and Orsino’s wife.
Amongst all the dry humour in “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”, sharp insight into the way we conduct scientific and social experiments, and Larkin-esque sense of “they fuck you up, your mum and dad,” is this skilfully drawn disruption of three siblings – a pair of twins and their brother. Like Viola and Sebastian, the twins Rosemary and Fern are eventually denied the comfort of an embrace, and for Rosemary at least the separation from her sister causes a chasm which she has been unable to heal. In that respect there is a vein of irremediable sadness running though Fowler’s novel, but I enjoyed it no less for that. I couldn’t entirely get to grips with Rosemary, or feel for her as much as I would have hoped to – but perhaps that’s the point. Without Fern she is only half of the self she might have been.