Publisher: Bloomsbury | Publication date: 14th January 2016
Sometimes I think I have made it up. Days come where it feels like the whole thing is a story in my head and there was never any swap and any game.
Beside Myself sees a children’s game turning sour overnight. The laughing stops when no one will believe your version of events, and you’re left having to play along indefinitely until your own mind is staging a mutiny against you.
Helen and Ellie are identical twins whose mother even dresses their hair differently so she can tell them apart easier. But they have other unique features too. Helen’s clothes are neat, she is popular, an achiever and a leader. Ellie’s clothes are practical with a tee-shirt baggy at the neck where she incessantly tugs at it. She is the follower, and not quick to grasp the cruel games that are often played at her expense.
One day Helen suggests they play an extra special game by swapping places. It’ll be a giggle, she tells Ellie. Don’t worry, just do as I do. So, Ellie does as Helen says and all goes to plan. They manage to fool a few people on the way home and it is indeed huge gas, until, that is, they don’t have the time to swap back into the rightful places and are forced to play along for a little while longer. Despite Helen’s protests Ellie doesn’t make any genuine effort to swap places the next day, nor the day after – it seems she quite likes her new role.
Frustration leads to a series of tensions, little ‘accidents’ and tantrums, which tragically see Helen adopting her sister’s ‘Ellieness’, until she risks being ‘branded’ forever Ellie, with all her sister’s odd little traits in tow. The grim reality of the original game continues to have a major impact, as Helen seeks disturbing ways in order to remove herself from the nightmare she unwittingly created all those years ago. Her life is fraught with moments of despair and she experiences countless unfortunate events, and all because she is not herself.
This distorted world makes it difficult for her to fit in. She is given little opportunity to shine. She is labelled, shelved and abandoned. Eventually, real Helen becomes a shadow of herself and is later referred to throughout the story as ‘Smudge’. That’s hardly surprising considering life is not only chipping away at her identity but also her sanity. The opinionated little voices that develop in Smudge’s head are mini characters all of their own, complete with cutting responses and precision timing.
Seeking to explore the darkest of places, the writing allows you to step inside the characters’ minds until you are wholly absorbed by their tortured moments. It was challenging to see them unravelling before my eyes, but also touching to see them trying to build bridges out of the rubble left over from a previous life, where even the truth may not be enough to hold things together anymore.
An absolutely stunning read that took my breath away.
(My thanks to the publisher for providing a proof copy of this title in a recent giveaway they kindly ran on Twitter. I’m so, so grateful to have been given the opportunity to read this marvellous book.)
(Courtesy of Amazon UK)
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?
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.
(Courtesy of publisher’s press release)
Anne Morgan is a freelance writer and editor based in London. Anne’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Australian and the New Internationalist, and she was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition 2010. She has also sub-edited for publications including Tatler and Vanity Fair.
Following the success of her project to read a book from every country in 2012, Ann continues to blog about international literature at ayearofreadingtheworld.com. Her first book, Reading the World: Conesssions of a Literary Explorer, was published to great critical acclaim in 2005.
Beside Myself is her first novel.