Friday, 19 August 2016

Book Review: Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

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?

I read Beside Myself as part of the Eclectic Reader Challenge, which asked for a debut author in 2016.  I was drawn to this book by its intriguing premise - a twin essentially takes over her sister's identity. I wondered what would happen to the lives of these twin sisters, and just how far Ellie would go to keep the truth from coming out.

I expected Beside Myself to be an intense thriller, perhaps one full of violence. Instead, it is far more a book about mental illness and Smudge's descent into madness. Don't get me wrong, I certainly enjoyed reading this story; it just wasn't what I expected going in.

Ann Morgan managed to capture the behaviour of someone who is losing their grip on reality, someone who is cut off from their emotions and unable to move forward in life. At times Smudge's narrative is scattered and hard to follow, her thoughts rushing from one extreme to the other. As a reader, this was a challenge to keep up with. But I admire Morgan's ability to get the truth of mental illness onto the page; while reading I felt myself growing confused and unsure, mimicking Ellie's own feelings and disorientation - telling the story in that fumbling way is clever writing by Morgan.

The main theme in Beside Myself is a question of identity - who are we really and how can our circumstances change us? The novel explores an interesting idea - that who we are can be a product of how we are treated by others. At the beginning, Helen is the happy, confident one, who is adored by all. But as soon as the twins switch and Helen is treated with annoyance, as Ellie always was, she retreats into her shell and becomes Ellie. Likewise, shy Ellie is suddenly treated with affection so she steps out of her shell and basks in the attention; she becomes Helen. This made me wonder - are our child personalities so malleable that we can be forever altered by the attitudes of others? I think we can. Often, as children, we're told certain things about who we are. Some might be true, but sometimes they're the false observations of well-meaning adults. Either way, they can influence how we see ourselves, and the personality we go on to present to the outside world.  

Beside Myself is a complex novel. It was hard to read at times, but I believe that was the point. Morgan gave us an insight into mental illness, as well as the havoc a big lie can wreak on an innocent mind. While I did find parts of the novel quite predictable, and the character of 'Mother' to be too far-fetched in her behaviour, I enjoyed reading the book and got very caught up in the story. I'll be keeping an eye out for Morgan's next novel.   

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