I spotted this 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction winner on the shelves and scooped it up, after recalling it was recommended by a couple of my students.
What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment? Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother, Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.
As soon as I started reading, the surefooted first person voice pulled me in – and then about a quarter of the way in, came the revelation which I didn’t see coming. At all. This is such a clever, original book. What you think must be the themes when you start reading about the fallout surrounding Fern’s disappearance on her family, once you get past That Point, you realise there is another agenda alongside the expected issues of loss and identity. As Rosemary starts facing up to the fallout and decides to try and put things right, it would have been so very easy for this book to have lapsed into sentimentality – which Fowler manages to avoid, chiefly by giving us dollops of madcap humour.
All the supporting characters ping off the page, filtered by Rosemary’s sharp observations and interleaved with the apt and layered dialogue scenes that resonate with all the unspoken conversations. Fowler’s handling of the narrative is sophisticated and deft – given that Rosemary starts her story in the middle because she cannot face starting at the beginning, we get a ringside seat as she starts crumbling until she has to confront what happened when she was five. As she then provides the backstory, along with the extra layer of information we need to know about Fern and Lowell’s part in the story, it would have been all too easy to have lost the tension, let the narrative stray. But she keeps absolute control – this book is a tour de force, which is hardly a surprise, given it is Fowler’s sixth novel and she has also two collections of short stories published.
She is an experienced author at the top of her game and this book was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker award – with good reason. But don’t take my word for it – track it down. It is an outstanding read that will remain with me for a long time – oh, and if you do intend to read it, do avoid the reviews by The Guardian and Telegraph. For reasons best known to themselves, both reviewers have seen fit to give the spoiler regarding Fern’s disappearance that the publishers have been very careful to omit in their blurb, which is a disgraceful betrayal of their readership in my opinion.