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 drama about family and identity – what makes us who we are and how very fragile it can be.
I received my review copy from Bloomsbury
Unreliable narrators can make for great reading and in Ann Morgan’s Beside Myself we have a cracker – this narrator is all over the place!
Helen was the strong twin, the clever and confident one. Ellie awkward, clumsy and (if truth be told) a bit of a disappointment. Until one day when they try to play a prank and ‘swap’ places and Ellie does not swap back. And here lies the key to the whole story…nobody notices.
So did they actually swap and is our narrator (Helen) living a lie? Or did they not swap and are we actually following Ellie’s story?
Well as I read I will admit that I changed my mind a couple of times about who was telling the story – the assertion from the narrator is that we are with Helen. Her life has not been easy, troubled teen years, mental health issues and trouble adjusting into society leave her in a vulnerable position. How many of her issues could be put down to her sister stealing her life? It is possible, however, that we are reading about Ellie who cannot accept that she is NOT Helen and the whole tale is one of denial.
I believe the story will hinge upon whether you can accept that the swap may indeed have occurred. I will confess I struggled to accept that the ‘ugly ducking’ could become a swan overnight while at the same time the swan regressed into a duckling. But sufficient doubt was raised in the narrative and an explanation as to why the girl’s mother did not notice the change (nor did their school).
The chapters dealing with “Helen’s” mental health issues were quite tough reading but added real weight to the unreliable narrator element. I had genuine empathy with her plight at times then her behaviour would flip and I found I liked her less – a respectful nod to the skill of the author here.
Most of Beside Myself is told in flashback as the current day events place our narrator in the middle of a critical situation. To avoid spoilers I will not dwell on this aspect of the plot – suffice to say the identity question appears to have a possible resolution within “Helen’s” grasp.
Overall I quite enjoyed Beside Myself – I felt I was in the middle of the book for a very long time which leads me to conclude it may have dropped pace a tad. But I was sufficiently intrigued in finding out what had happened (and also what would happen next) to plough on to the conclusion.
Clever premise – definitely a story to consider spending some time with.
Beside Myself is published by Bloomsbury and is available in Hardback and Digital format here: