"Beside Myself" Ann Morgan
Helen and Ellie are identical twins - like two peas in a pod says everyone- except the girls know this isn't true. Helen is the leader and Ellie is the follower.
One day they decide to swap places, just for fun. Just for one day.
But then Ellie refuses to swap back. And so begins Helen's nightmare from which she cannot wake up.......
The quotes adorning this novel are striking hyperboles like "compelling", "gripping", "ingenious" and "blistering clever". However, in this case, I have to completely agree with every single adjective used both on the inside and outside of its cover!
Any story about twins - and there have been some excellent ones published recently - is usually captivating, but this novel really is compulsive.
The atmosphere set up in the prologue is cold and unpleasant- the narrative voice is so unkind, so cruel and so full of malice that automatically a high level of tension and anticipation is established. The spine chilling final sentence, "We're going to play a game," was literally left ringing in my ears as I turned to Chapter One.
The writing is clever. The prose is sometimes quite lyrical; often only short phrases or deliberately vague imagery is used to convey character and setting. At other times the voice of the young Helen is captured with sincere authenticity and conviction. Morgan has set herself the challenge of writing two story lines - one in the present day as "Smudge" receives a phone call forcing her to confront her past, and one in the past, following the story from the moment of the swap. Both voices are the same character but both voices are very different - just as the character is so very different as a result of the disastrous effect their game.
Morgan's novel is about identity and how the way we are defined and treated by others affects us. What I found really fascinating was the judgements made against Ellie and the lack of fairness or opportunity offered to her. Then Helen becomes Ellie - Helen who is supposedly the intelligent, pretty, graceful and popular child- she is automatically treated unfairly and never once given the chance to prove herself. Helen's outrage and frustration is so palpably created by Morgan that it was impossible not to become emotionally involved with these three dimensional characters.
The children's world of school and family is exceptionally well evoked. The twins first day back at school after the swap was compelling reading - I've just tried to skim back for a quote and ended up rereading three pages, once again totally absorbed in Helen's childlike observations and hopes. It's so vivid. It's so emotive.
Morgan allows us to care for both girls even though they can both be equally monstrous in their behaviour towards each other. At first I did not believe I could ever sympathise with Helen, but when she tries to trick Ellie using the same cruel game herself and Mary have frequently tormented her with and it backfires so she is suddenly the victim, I felt a surge of shock and sympathy.
It's incredible that Ellie, always thought to be so slow, dimwitted and weak, has the power, insight, confidence and brazenness to reinvent herself as Helen with so much conviction. But then I guess this idea of prejudice and never allowing people to shake off labels is a fascinating theme which Morgan wants to explore in her writing.
Helen gradually becomes "Smudge". A woman who has lost her own identity and become a shadow. Her musings do become more muddled, the blurring between the truth, the past, the present, which girl is which and keeping track of whether it's Ellie / Helen or Helen / Ellie reflects a kind of descent into madness and conveys how devastating the consequences of a malicious game can be. The shockwaves from the Ellie's decision to suddenly not relent to Helen throw huge crashing waves thought the entire family for the rest of their lives. I liked that at times I felt I was drowning in the novel, spiralling into madness alongside Helen. It is not often that you can become so absorbed that it feels as if you are truly inside the disturbed, confused mind of the protagonist.
It is not just a thriller - it is more than that. It is gripping as there is a constant confusion about which twin is which, if they will ever be discovered and then the shock revelations about some dark secrets hidden behind the closed doors of the family home. It is a sinister page turner. But this novel is more unsettling than that. This book is psychologically unnerving; it examines mental illness, fragility and the sense of self. The ending raises shocking questions about secrets, game playing and parenting. The protagonists are complex, the plot is multilayered, the writing often beautifully metaphorical. It is immensely thought provoking and an impressive debut.
I can't wait to read more from Ann Morgan and as Heat says on the back cover - I do feel a little haunted even after nearly a week of finishing the last page!
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