Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan, is a powerful exploration of family, identity and mental health. It examines a fractured family whose matriarch believes individuals should take responsibility for their problems; that they should be contained, hidden from the outside world; that to make a fuss is worse than whatever the cause may have been.
Ellie and Helen are twins, as alike as two peas in a pod. Helen is the leader, the good girl who has to look out for her stupider sister. Sometimes this means giving her a lesson, inflicting cruelties which Helen enjoys. One day she decides that they will play a game. Helen will pretend to be Ellie and Ellie is to pretend to be Helen. They swap the clothes and hairstyles that their mother gives them that people may tell them apart. Except the day they choose to play the game is the day that Mother moves her new man into their home. Everyone is fooled by the girls’ deceit, and then Ellie refuses to swap back.
This is Helen’s story, the twin who is now known as Ellie. Alternate chapters deal with her childhood and adulthood, the timelines converging as her tale is told. When we first meet her as an adult it is clear that her life is a mess. She is hungover, living in poverty, estranged from her family. When she hears that her sister is in a coma following a car accident she doesn’t wish to become involved. Her sister’s husband will not accept this.
From the first page I was hooked. The premise is intriguing but it is the development that really impressed. There is no filler. Every chapter offers up yet another reveal, another punch in the gut. Ellie is constantly reaching out to those around her and finding emptiness. It is an aloneness that hurts in its realism.
As adults it is too easy to look at a troubled child and believe that, with the right support, they could be mended. This story demonstrates that much of that support is misplaced. A child struggles to speak the language of adults who will always consider that they know best. Like many youngsters, Ellie tells stories as she grasps for attention. Her attempts to explain the truth then flounder, the words she struggles to find treated with contempt.
Ellie is labelled as backward and troublesome. Her hopes of fresh starts are blown away by the reports that go ahead of her, passed between the adults charged with her care. As realisation dawns that she has no power to change her situation she finds a way to cope by ceasing to care. With nothing now to lose, rules and conventions may be ignored.
I felt anger and sadness as Ellie’s story unfolded. I was awed at the author’s accomplishment in the telling. Difficult issues of nature, nurture, how adults treat children and society judges; are woven into a compelling story of relationships, and the blame apportioned when outcomes clash with ideals.
The denouement provides explanations for many of the problems Ellie faced. There are no easy answers but it is a satisfying end to the tale.
This is a remarkable work of literature that I have no hesitation in recommending. It will be amongst my best reads of the year.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury Circus.