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Sisters And Other Creatures

Monday, December 01, 2014
By Deepa Gahlot

For a change, Rosemary Cooke starts her extraordinary story in the middle and loops it around her memories. Perhaps because starting at the beginning would be too painful for her. Karen Jay Fowler’s award-winning book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about the Cooke family, seen from the point of view of the daughter Rosemary or Rosie. Her life and that of her family—parents and brother—has been deeply scarred by the sudden disappearance of her ‘sister’ Fern.

Five-year-old Rosie is sent away to live with her grandparents, because, as she finds out later, her mother was having a nervous breakdown.  When she returns she finds that Fern is missing and no explanations are offered. Then her beloved brother Lowell leaves home in a rage and embarks on a path of self-destruction as an animal rights activist.

Somewhere along the way, the reader discovers that Fern was a baby chimpanzee, brought into the home by Rosie’s psychologist father, to conduct an animal-human behaviour experiment.  While the impact of human interaction on the primate is observed and recorded by her father and his students, nobody is too concerned on the impact of having a chimp sibling has on the girl child.

“Most home-raised chimps, when asked to sort photographs into piles of chimps and humans, make only the one mistake of putting their own picture into the human pile. This is exactly what Fern did,” Rosemary recalls. “What seems not to have been anticipated was my own confusion.”

As she is left mourning the loss of her playmate, she finds that other children in school find her behavior bizarre and call her Monkey Girl.  Must later in college, she is befriended by the unruly Harlow, who is so weird herself that she does not even notice Rosie’s strangeness. When Rosie first encounters Harlow, she is breaking up with her boyfriend and smashing furniture in the college cafeteria—which leads to her and Rosie’s arrest. To Rosie’s still grieving and conflicted mind, she is a human version of the hell-raising Fern.

Both Rosie and Lowell’s lives are spent in trying to find Fern and undo the wrong done to her in the name of research. The book is as much about family loyalty as it is about animal rights. The question it raises over and over again is, can humans justify the horrific cruelty they inflict on animals, because the results of their experiments could help improve human lives? Does the end justify the means?

The book is deftly blends profundity and humour with Rosie’s emotions of pain, confusion and guilt. It also leaves the reader caring as much for the damaged Rosie, Lowell and Harlow as for the innocent Fern, who had no way of preventing what happened to her. A must-read book by the author of the highly regarded The Jane Austen Book Club.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Jay Fowler
Published by Marian Wood/Putnam
Pages: 320

Extract From We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:
Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child. We have a home movie taken when I was two years old, the old-fashioned kind with no sound track, and by now the colours have bled out—a white sky, my red sneakers a ghostly pink—but you can still see how much I used to talk.

I’m doing a bit of landscaping, picking up one stone at a time from our gravel driveway, carrying it to a large tin washtub, dropping it in, and going back for the next. I’m working hard, but showily. I widen my eyes like a silent film star. I hold up a clear piece of quartz to be admired, put it in my mouth, stuff it into one cheek.

My mother appears and removes it. She steps back then, out of the frame, but I’m speaking emphatically now—you can see this in my gestures—and she returns, drops the stone into the tub. The whole thing lasts about five minutes and I never stop talking.

A few years later, Mom read us that old fairy tale in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, and this is the image it conjured for me, this scene from this movie, where my mother puts her hand into my mouth and pulls out a diamond.

I was towheaded back then, prettier as a child than I’ve turned out, and dolled up for the camera. My flyaway bangs are pasted down with water and held on one side by a rhinestone barrette shaped like a bow. Whenever I turn my head, the barrette blinks in the sunlight. My little hand sweeps over my tub of rocks. All this, I could be saying, all this will be yours someday.

Or something else entirely. The point of the movie isn’t the words themselves. What my parents valued was their extravagant abundance, their inexhaustible flow.

Still, there were occasions on which I had to be stopped. When you think of two things to say, pick your favourite and only say that, my mother suggested once, as a tip to polite social behaviour, and the rule was later modified to one in three. My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.

Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.

Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.

It happens often that we see our own country better through the eyes of an outsider. Many of us may have visited Delhi and made the mandatory trip to Chandni Chowk and Bengali Market, but how many explored fully the delights of the city’s street food and dug out long-cherished recipes?  Pamela Timms does just that with a foreigner’s sense of excitement and wonder, and comes up with a slim book that is a delightful revelation of some of old Delhi’s best-kept culinary secrets, hidden away in its gullies and mohallas. Along with the food are word portraits of the people who have kept old cooking traditions alive. The book would inspire the reader not just to try some of the recipes, but also put aside fear of the infamous Delhi Belly and go in some of the food trails opened up by the intrepid Timms.

Korma Kheer Kismet: Five Seasons In Old Delhi
by Pamela Timms
Published by Aleph Book Company
Pages: 175

Karan Verma’s book is a quick, breezy read for young readers who want a simple plot, prose that doesn’t have then diving for the dictionary and the feeling that at the end they have learnt something that can enhance their lives.  Verma sets up two diverse characters a ‘Jack of all trades’ and a ‘Master of one’ builds around their friendship a story that also tries to figure out which approach to life is better. Jack and Siddharth meet in college in Goa and the book briskly maps 20 years of their lives to the end when they share a common platform. It’s not great literature, the dialogue is colloquial, but it is meant to appeal to the reader at the popular Chetan Bhagat level, and this modest goal it achieves.

Jack And  Master
by Karan Verma
Published by Rupa
Pages: 246

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books have a devoted fan following. Personal is the nineteenth book with the enigmatic ex military man as the hero. He is a loner who can traced only if he wants to be. He has no home, no bank account and no credit cards. He travels light with just a toothbrush in his pocket. When his clothes get too dirty, he chucks them and buys new ones. He is just so cool that books in which he appears are compulsively readable. In Personal, he is summoned when a sniper takes a shot at the President of France. Shooters with that kind of expertise can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and only Reacher can hunt down this one before another important leader can be targeted at the G8 Summit in London.  So with the mandatory young woman in tow, he sets out to look for and stop the potential killer; he realizes soon enough that this mad man has a personal score to settle with him. Read this one and then go back and read all the other Reacher books—they are that good.

Personal
by Lee Child
Published by Bantam UK/Delacorte (US) Company
Pages: 416

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