Review: Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

Genre: Thriller / General Fiction

Helen and Ellie are identical twins, but their personalities couldn’t be more different, or so Helen thinks. She’s the good girl. The smart one. The leader. When she and Ellie decide to switch places, she thinks it’ll be fun—a game to pass a slow summer afternoon. As they swap clothes and hairstyles, it doesn’t occur to Helen that their own mother might fall for the mix-up or that Ellie—slow, simple Ellie—could ever really take her place. But the girls’ mother hasn’t been herself since their father made his Unfortunate Decision, and Ellie is more eager for a fresh start than Helen knows.

Years later ‘Smudge’ is broke, living in a rundown flat and trying to ignore the cacophony of voices in her head when she learns that her moderately famous sister, Hellie, is in a coma. The girls haven’t spoken since they were teenagers, but amid the litter of unopened bills and catalogues beneath her mail slot, Smudge finds a letter from her sister and soon learns that Hellie was on her way to visit when she was involved in a terrible accident.

But what could Hellie possibly want after so many years of silence? Are there things about the past that Smudge doesn’t know? And if she can put all the pieces together, is this a chance to finally prove who she really is?

Beside Myself (Bloomsbury, 2016) is a compelling, twisting tale of mistaken identity and family secrets that asks: what’s in a name?

When Beside Myself was first released in the UK, Bloomsbury billed it as ‘a compulsive and darkly brilliant psychological thriller’. But to my mind, it reads as more bildungsroman than thriller. Sure it’s dark and tense, especially in the opening chapters, but it’s clear fairly early on that the real Helen isn’t getting her identity back and the story’s focus soon shifts to why no one is willing to believe her and, more importantly, how she’s going to renegotiate her sense of self. It’s a narrative that examines the way we construct and perceive identity and asks: to what extent are we defined by our past and/or let other people’s perceptions of us determine our future? To be honest, this makes for a far more interesting and layered story than your bog-standard thriller but may not be your speed if you’re expecting Gone Girl.

It’s also a story that explores the long reaching effects of psychological trauma and documents a family’s struggle with mental illness. The twins’ father is bipolar and commits suicide when the girls are young. For a time following his death, their mother suffers severe depression and it’s clear from childhood that the girls are also unwell and not receiving the care they need. Through Smudge, Morgan offers some insight into the experience of living with a debilitating mental illness and demonstrates how easily people with mental health issues can fall through the cracks when they lack strong support networks, particularly from their family.

The story alternates between Smudge in the months following her sister’s hospitalisation and Helen from the day she trades places with Ellie when the girls are seven years old. Interestingly, younger Helen’s story is narrated in second person, and the use of ‘you’ rather than the first person ‘I’ or third person ‘she’ raises the stakes and heightens the tension. It also  builds compassion and empathy for a character who acts out her frustration in increasingly destructive ways. My reading copy is an uncorrected proof, so I won’t include quotes in this review, but Morgan’s prose is vivid and tight, while the story is well-paced and compelling.

That said, the plotting occasionally tested the limits of my suspended disbelief. Mistaken identity makes for an intriguing premise, and I was willing to buy into the idea that, for various semi-plausible reasons, no one believes Helen when she tells them that she and Ellie have swapped places. However, the switch is just one mishap in a much broader family drama. Almost all the characters suffer a severe mental illness and several are sexually abused as children. There’s suicide, another untimely death, multiple sets of twins, marital crises, affairs and the occasional stroke of improbable good fortune. While I was never in danger of setting the book down, I do feel the story occasionally strays from the unlikely to the impossible.

Beside Myself wasn’t the thrill ride I expected, but it was a taut, unsettling and compulsive read.

See Beside Myself on Goodreads and purchase through BooktopiaBook Depository and Amazon.

Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing a copy of Beside Myself in exchange for an honest review. 

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