Ann Morgan’s debut is a gripping psychological novel about family and identity. It tells the story of twin sisters Helen and Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Sallis and a childhood prank gone wrong…
‘Come on, Ellie,’ I say. ‘We’re going to play a game.’
Twins Helen and Ellie may be identical in appearance but this is where the similarities end. Helen is the more popular of the girls – more confident, brighter with an enviable circle of friends. On the other hand there is Ellie who struggles at school and is not as popular as her sister. To outsiders though they are like two peas in a pod, with neighbours struggling to tell them apart. Furthermore, their own mother, who seems to be very distant at times, does not give the girls her full attention. This leads to the game that will shape both their lives in significant ways, the game where they swap places. But would anyone notice? Surely their mother will be able to tell the difference between her own children?
What begins as a fun prank to fool the grown-ups soon evolves into something far more sinister. Ellie, the ‘follower’ gets a taste of life as Helen. The popularity, her mother’s favour, she even begins to excel at school. This raises interesting points about our psychology, how we can thrive in certain situations or with the right support. It is also, more crucially, a look at identity and what defines us as an individual. As Ellie or ‘Hellie’ as she is later referred to begins to develop, Helen begins on a downward spiral, unwittingly adopting her sister’s persona. As she pleads to family, teachers and neighbours that they have swapped places her behaviour starts to become increasingly erratic, and it seems there is no way back for Helen.
The novel is told with different points of view alternating between first person narrative for Helen’s story from the day of the swap to third person for Helen’s (‘Smudge’) story in the present day. I liked this aspect as we see how Smudge is coping now and events from her past that are told in the alternate chapters are gradually revealed. There are also chapters narrated by Helen that seem to be told in second person narrative. Admittedly, I found it quite difficult to begin with to keep track of which twin was which due to the changing point of view but it was nonetheless an interesting way to get a glimpse into Helen’s state of mind.
It is certainly a compelling read and a lot of the content is very dark. It explores mental illness and its impact on individuals and their families. As Helen’s life begins to spiral out of control we see how easy it is for a person to become vulnerable. We see how a lack of support can lead to a person falling through the cracks, falling into a dark place from which there is seemingly no escape. This is where I feel the story is at its most powerful. Whilst some of the things that happen to Helen are extreme it shows how mental illness can impact a person’s life and how it can affect anyone at anytime. Helen was a popular, intelligent child, but she wasn’t immune to the heartbreak that mental illness can inflict.
Beside Myself was a difficult read in parts, and I couldn’t help but feel sad for what both twins went through. I found the girl’s mother to be a highly frustrating character, albeit a character who had her own demons to fight. It was heart-breaking to see the girls, who are also without their father, almost neglected. Ellie appears to be the subject of much torment and both girls were without the support they needed to deal with situations that are beyond a child’s comprehension.
All in all despite the distressing subject matter I enjoyed this novel and found it to be highly readable. It is a chilling psychological tale of family, mental illness and identity, and a glimpse at how fragile human life can be.
Beside Myself is due to be published on 14th January 2016 by Bloomsbury. Many thanks to Philippa Cotton at Bloomsbury for providing a proof copy for review.