Another debut thriller for 14th January 2016, Beside Myself by Ann Morgan is sure to be a competitor for The Widow. Can I first just say how brilliant this cover is?! I know you’re not supposed to judge by that, but as soon as I saw it on Twitter and Netgalley, I wanted to read it. The combination of creepy shading and the innocence of the childish image is so compelling and contrasting, and the idea of a window just immediately shouts to me that there’s something trapped inside. After seeing the cover, I read the blurb and I knew I had to get my hands on it.
“Helen and Ellie are identical twins – like two peas in a pod, everyone says.
The girls know this isn’t true, though: Helen is the leader and Ellie the follower.
Until they decide to swap places: just for fun, and just for one day.
But Ellie refuses to swap back…
And so begins a nightmare from which Helen cannot wake up. Her toys, her clothes, her friends, her glowing record at school, the favour of her mother and the future she had dreamed of are all gone to a sister who blossoms in the approval that used to belong to Helen. And as the years pass, she loses not only her memory of that day but also herself – until eventually only ‘Smudge’ is left.
Twenty-five years later, Smudge receives a call from out of the blue. It threatens to pull her back into her sister’s dangerous orbit, but if this is her only chance to face the past, how can she resist?
Beside Myself is a compulsive and darkly brilliant psychological thriller about family and identity – what makes us who we are and how very fragile it can be.”
I was desperate for this book and I’m so glad to say it didn’t disappoint. The exploration of identity in this novel is incredible, both for Helen and Ellie. I’ve never gone from hating a character so much to feeling so remorseful, except for maybe Snape. The moment you learn the truth about their exchange completely turns the book around, it’s no longer a simple good-vs-evil set up but shows that everyone is flawed and everyone has a reason for their actions. It shows how a single moment can affect who you are, so much that you no longer want to be that person. I adore books like this: where no one is perfect and you can empathise with each character and battle with yourself whether you like them or not.
At first I struggled with the concept that you would let yourself be replaced so easily, that Helen seemed to give up after only a few outbursts. But taking into account how young they are, and how much you trust and love your parents at that age, it’s almost believable that you would settle after a little while and accept defeat.
Watching Helen grow up as the wrong person was both heart-breaking and interestingly destructive. That sounds morbid but it was amazing to imagine how much identity can shape you, how easily you become lost without it and how much it can change your entire life. I rejoiced for her in her moments of normality and love and raged for her when she was told again and again how she was a crazy monster. Any element of frustration at her for seeming so childish as an adult was erased by the reminders that in fact her life stopped at childhood and since she has endured some of the worst things a person can.
The book also examines mental health, something which is ever prevalent and important to us all and this just shows how vital it is that we understand mental health and help those suffering, both to stop such awful things happening and to prevent such mistreatment as Smudge gets, just being forced to draw like she has no intelligence rather than being worked with to grow. If she had been understood at that young age, rather than classing her problems as rebellion, ‘craziness’ and unintelligence, her future may have been very different.
Let me talk about the ending. It was one of those ones you half see coming but half wonder if it will happen and even when it does, you find it shocking. Despite the journey being a difficult and utterly devastating one, the end feels hopeful, reassuring us that we’ll all find our place eventually.
Identity is something a lot of people struggle with. A lot of people go through a few rough years trying to figure out who they are and in some ways, this is just an extreme version of that. Helen becomes someone you can relate to and sympathise with and by the end, you are just very emotionally attached to those two little girls from the beginning of the book and the women they grew up to be. Similarly it’s interesting to see how people can force you into an identity. ‘Ellie’ was seen as clumsy and less clever, and try as Helen might, she couldn’t change the perception. It reflects as much on the surrounding characters as it does on the twins and shows how damaging it can be to be pressured to live up to certain traits or expectations.
Ellie is not a villain though it feels easy to blame her at times. By the end, I felt incredibly connected to her with such despair for her painful life. She also lost her own identity and when you know why, you come close to forgiving her for stealing her sister’s. Her rigid and ‘perfect’ life is still one that has been fractured by a tragic past and in the end you can only feel sorry for them both.
Beside Myself is a great novel which gets you thinking, as you can see from my lengthy post. At moments it felt sensationalised, but it got across its point as an extreme version of something incredibly relevant.