Helen and Ellie are identical twins. One day they decide to play a swapping game. Can they pretend to be each other and get away with it? It is fun to successfully pretend to be someone else until Ellie refuses to swap back. Will anyone ever believe Helen when she says she isn’t Ellie? And what happens when the person in charge of your identity takes it in new directions, directions you couldn’t emulate?
Beside Myself describes the swap from Helen’s perspective, stuck in the less well-adjusted Ellie’s persona – Ellie was less popular, more withdrawn, in counselling in school. When the now famous twin, masquerading as Helen, is sent into a comma after a car accident, the adult Helen is forced to confront the past.
The premise itself is enough to grip a reader. The identity violation feels like a personal affront and we quickly understand the troubling impact the swap has had on Helen. If you box someone in, define them with no room for change or growth, all their energy soon turns to anger, forcing us to confront the complex relationship between trauma and mental illness. This takes Beside Myself out of the straightforward psychological thriller bracket into a novel that puts the British family under the microscope. Unsurprisingly, the power of the unsaid holds sway.
Of course I’m only giving you some of the story so as not to spoil the plot. Aside from mental illness, trauma and the family, Beside Myself also looks at art, advertising, music, architecture, heredity and romance, taking in more than one car accident along the way.
This won’t be a novel for the faint-hearted. If you don’t want to read about some of the less pleasant aspects of human behaviour, Beside Myself won’t be for you. There is rape, madness and suicide. But if you want to be confronted with difficult truths, if you want to think about how easily we force others into roles that confine them, then Beside Myself will be just what you are looking for.
Though I found the ending a little too neat – I’m a fan of an ending with extra large helpings of uncertainty, something publishing houses often shy away from – Beside Myself has really stayed with me, plaguing my thoughts in a horrorful but brilliant way. Beside Myself is not only gripping, it’s thoughtful and provocative, forcing the reader to ask questions about the shortcomings of social stereotypes. Ann Morgan is an author I’d like to hear more from.
Next week I’m reading Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue.