All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

on January 25, 2016

Beside MyselfBeside Myself
Ann Morgan
Bloomsbury Publishing (UK & ANZ)
2016, 313p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Beside Myself is a literary thriller about identical twins, Ellie and Helen, who swap places aged six. At first it is just a game, but then Ellie refuses to swap back. Forced into her new identity, Helen develops a host of behavioural problems, delinquency and chronic instability. With their lives diverging sharply, one twin headed for stardom and the other locked in a spiral of addiction and mental illness, how will the deception ever be uncovered? Exploring questions of identity, selfhood, and how other people’s expectations affect human behaviour, this novel is as gripping as it is psychologically complex.

This is the first fiction novel of Ann Morgan, who is quite well known for her A Year of Reading the World blog. I’ve been reading that blog for a while now and followed her quest to read a book from every country on the planet, detailing how people sought her out to help her, often unofficially translating publications for her, supplying their own copies of books and just generally giving information on books from countries that would be considered difficult to source material from. She published a book about that experience and has now turned her hand to fiction.

So much about this blurb intrigued me. When I was younger, I wanted to be an identical twin. I read all the Sweet Valley Twins/High/University books and thought it sounded like so much fun. Of course as I grew older I kind of lost interest in being a twin and wanted to have twins. Then I became pregnant and was really rather relieved that each time, the ultrasound showed a single baby. But I find the twin dynamic really interesting and I enjoy reading books that feature twins, especially ones that revolve around the differences, the evolving relationship as they negotiate adolescence and adulthood. I think a lot of books paint one twin as the good Elizabeth-style twin and another as the more reckless Jessica-style twin who usually bullies/takes advantage of the good one and I’m not sure it’s always that simple.

Beside Myself is certainly complex in some ways but I think it also relied on the good/less good theory to begin with. Helen is the ‘good’ twin who gets good marks in school, gets to wear pretty clothes. Ellie is behind at school, is always pulling at the neckline of her clothes and ruining them and occasionally still wets the bed. One day as a ‘trick’, Helen suggests they swap roles and she coaches Ellie on how to behave like her. Helen does their hair differently, swapping their usual hairstyles and they swap clothes. The only problem is that when the trick is over, Ellie refuses to swap back, continuing to act like Helen and Helen becomes so frustrated that she seems to take on ‘Ellie’ traits. The more desperate Helen is to prove who she is, the more she seems unable to whereas Ellie seems to excel, seemingly having no more trouble doing schoolwork, no more accidents.

So much of the early set up seemed implausible to me: is it really possible for a mother not to notice that her children had swapped roles? Most mothers/family members of multiples that I know can tell them apart in an instant, no matter who they’re pretending to be. My husband knows twins and occasionally we see one or the other on tv. “I don’t know which one it is,” I’ll say, because they need to be in front of me in person for me to tell them apart as there are some subtle differences. My husband will glance at the screen, they’re usually some 50+ metres away from the camera, often not looking or back towards us or whatever. But he’ll state “that’s A or B” within three seconds. He’s known them 20+ years and says they even walk differently and don’t need to be facing him for him to know which one it is. And yet Helen and Ellie’s mother accepts it in a second, which I just couldn’t buy. Attempts are made late in the book to address this but I’m not sure I found them plausible either. If that was the true motivation, I think it’s even more heinous than not being able to tell your children apart at the age of seven.

The book skips back and forth a bit in time, from when the twins are children to when they’re adults. Their lives have diverged significantly – Ellie-now-Helen is a TV presenter, married to an architect living in a beautiful home. Helen-now-Ellie suffers from significant mental illness, lives on welfare and squats in squalor. They haven’t seen each other in many years – but their mother contacts the twin now known as Ellie to inform her that Helen has been in an accident and lies in a coma. Helen’s charismatic husband visits, begging her to come and see Helen as the one thing that might possibly wake her up. Ellie is reluctant but somehow ends up in Helen’s big house, seeing what her life could’ve possibly become…..had she never come up with that idea to swap roles as children. The problem for me was that I think I needed more from Helen/Ellie’s years in their late teens/early 20s. We get snatches of Helen-now-Ellie’s life as she is the narrator but I would’ve liked more, to get a better understanding of her illness. Was it something that lurked in her all the time? Or was it something that grew and developed because of the role she’d been forced into as a child? I’m probably supposed to decide myself but I can’t get past the fact that no one except the elderly grandmother with dementia seemed able to tell that the twins had swapped. Surely a different hairstyle and different clothes doesn’t change a person completely….how did Ellie-now-Helen improve so much at school? How did Helen-now-Ellie regress so much that she could barely colour in the lines in her first day or two of being forced into the role of Ellie at school?

Beside Myself was an interesting look at nature vs nurture and I thought the writing was superb. The story of one twin’s descent into mental illness, isolation and poverty did strike a chord within me but at the same time I did find it difficult to believe that she wouldn’t have been able to prove in some way that she wasn’t original Ellie. I was very surprised when the girls’ teacher didn’t seem to notice anything untoward at all and it seemed as though everything that unfolded did so because of something I found really difficult to believe. Even simple things, like one twin being bought lovely clothes and the other one being given daggy, ugly clothes struck me as merely a plot device to ensure they looked differently rather than something that was believable. Yes original Ellie had a habit of tugging on her clothes (something that seems to stop miraculously when she becomes Helen) but why continue to buy her clothes and shoes that were so inferior to her twin’s?

I have to give it good marks for the writing but ultimately it left me with too many questions and too few answers.

6/10

Book #7 of 2016

 

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2 responses to “Review: Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

  1. Deborah says:

    I agree re the feasibility and of course there’s the scene with the mother later in the book which left me agog!!! I struggled with the sense that so much of it just wasn’t fair!!!

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