Beside Myself, Ann Morgan, Bloomsbury, 2016, 313 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Beside Myself is a literary thriller about identical twins, Ellie and Helen, who swap places aged six. At first it is just a game, but then Ellie refuses to swap back. Forced into her new identity, Helen develops a host of behavioural problems, delinquency and chronic instability. With their lives diverging sharply, one twin headed for stardom and the other locked in a spiral of addiction and mental illness, how will the deception ever be uncovered? Exploring questions of identity, selfhood, and how other people's expectations affect human behaviour, this novel is as gripping as it is psychologically complex.
This is a novel about identical twins. Not a heartwarming twin story, except for maybe one chapter near the end, but by then your heart is so cold and frozen you wonder if it will ever thaw. A bit of hope enters in the last chapter but you have seen hope dashed many times in this gruesome tale. In fact, a reader who comes through with a warm heart is likely more screwed up than these twins ever were.
Ann Morgan is the writer who got me not just thinking about reading literature from many countries. She got me doing it because of her 2015 opus, The World Between Two Covers, an account of her completed quest to read a work of fiction from every country on Earth in one year. There was no way I was going to miss her debut novel. In summarizing her international reading experience, she describes how reading all those books changed her and opened up possibilities previously not glimpsed as to the many ways fiction could be created. The evidence of those changes shows in Beside Myself.
Helen and Ellie are six when they embark on a dangerous game. Helen is the older because she was the twin born first. She is the “good one.” Ellie is slower, dreamy, clumsy, and when anything goes wrong in the family it is Ellie’s fault. Helen makes up the game. They are going to swap; Ellie will be Helen and Helen will be Ellie. It will be fun to trick their mum and then even more fun when they tell her what they did. Trouble is, Ellie is very good at playing Helen and when the time comes to switch back, she doesn’t. She convinces Mother she really is Helen. The real Helen is stuck being Ellie from that day on.
It sounds like a fairytale doesn’t it? And the story carries on like those Grimm’s tales with all the creepiness and horror that have given children nightmares for years. Helen, as Ellie, spirals down throughout the rest of her childhood, living through one disheartening incident after another, until she is a broken mentally ill substance abuser living on welfare. Ellie, as Helen, grows up to be a famous celebrity with a trophy husband and rich beyond her dreams.
Set in Great Britain, the novel is also filled with British life and British terms. If you’ve read Kate Atkinson or Sara Waters or other contemporary authors from across the pond, you are grooved in. The story ratchets back and forth between the present day and the various stages of Helen’s life as she grows up being Ellie, told in third person for the present and first person for the past. Her past is a study in the ways expectations by others form a personality, of how cruel kids can be to each other, and the contribution of those factors in the disintegration of Helen’s identity. Such narrative choices leave the reader experiencing her disassociation and emotional despair.
After a pivotal event, the voice from Helen’s past changes from first to second person. She has moved outside of herself, watching as she begins to self-destruct. It is brilliant writing beyond what one would expect for a first novel. The marketers are calling this a psychological thriller but in reality it is a study in identity and in how the combined influences of family, heredity, and society can send a person over the edge. Despite the dark and gritty atmosphere, its portrayal of mental illness is one of the most sympathetic I’ve read since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I suspect Beside Myself will do better in Great Britain than in the United States. That is a pity because it blows Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train out of the water. Think Patricia Highsmith or Muriel Spark or Jose Saramago. Better yet, don’t think, just read it!
(Beside Myself is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback comes out on July 19, 2016.)