good-me-bad-me

‘New name. New family. Shiny. New. Me.’

People talk about the relative influences of nature vs nurture. But what if both influences were disturbingly malign throughout your childhood? Could you still forge a new path? If there are good and bad wolves inside each of us, which will win in the battle for supremacy? Annie knows the answer to this. It’s the wolf you feed. But which wolf will she feed?

What’s it about?

Annie has secrets. Bad secrets. Her mother is a serial killer who’s about to go on trial because Annie reported her to the police. Despite being given a fresh identity and a foster family placement, Annie/Milly struggles to break away from her mother’s influence. She’d like to be good, but she’s having some trouble with her memories, the looming trial and her new foster sister, who hates her. Can Milly fully embrace her new life? Even when the trial is over, she’ll still be her mother’s daughter.

What’s it like?

Deliciously creepy. Creatively narrated. Beautifully disturbing.

Milly narrates her own story in prose that’s frequently organised in unusual, fragmented ways, drawing readers firmly into the workings of a damaged mind. I was reminded of Caroline Smaile’s debut novel, ‘In Search of Adam’, which also uses fragmented language to reveal a mind damaged by abuse.

‘ProtĂ©gĂ©e. You loved saying that word. Brave enough. Am I? The lessons you gave me, good enough. Were they? You want them to blame me. you were there too, annie. I try to block out your voice.’

The narration is what makes the novel so compelling and disturbing. We see the world through Milly’s eyes, but we learn early on that she has a habit of withholding information even as she narrates around a particular event, saving a significant detail of her own or someone else’s behaviour to reveal later on. This is a stunningly effective way of gently unbalancing readers and reminding us that Milly is, ultimately, a damaged and occasionally unreliable narrator. The key aspect of these reveals is that, until Milly chooses to reveal the details she kept back, we are not aware that there are any gaps to be filled. I loved this aspect of Land’s story-telling and was always on the look-out for more hidden gaps, with the result that I was constantly on tenterhooks, speculating about what might have happened or what might be about to happen.

What’s to like?

Land’s portrayal of Milly is superbly chilling. There’s a coldness to her at times, a detachment that allows her to comment on the bullying she experiences without it truly touching her:

‘Thrown by my defiance, they are, I see it. Fleeting. The twitch around their succulent lips, eyes slightly wider. I shake my head, slow and deliberate.’

She manipulates other people carefully, adjusting her behaviour to reflect the image required – dutiful daughter, anxious sister, perfect pupil. She’s a wonderfully ambiguous creation and I really wanted her to be ‘good’, and to move past her fear and her guilt.

Final thoughts

I LOVED this book. It grew on me quietly and is one of those books that I came to fully appreciate days after I’d finished reading it, when the beauty and the horror had fully sunk in and I’d had the time to reflect on the way the whole narrative fits together.

The subject matter is dark – child abuse and murder – but Land handles her materials deftly and we only ever catch sideways glimpses of the horrors Annie and her mother’s victims suffered; we are never forced to suffer with then by enduring detailed discussion of the abuse. The book does, however, reinforce the horrific psychological damage such abuse can create in survivors, and remind us all of the paramount importance of investigating any suspected abuse.

‘You want them to blame me. you were there too, annie. I try to block out your voice.’

This is a compelling story of a very damaged young woman trying to build a new life for herself. Which wolf won? Why, the one that got fed, of course. The ending is delightfully chilling, and it’s a testament to Land’s creation that I really wanted to know what happened to Milly once the book was finished. (I have some ideas!)

This is being promoted as a book club read and I can see why – there’s plenty to discuss – but it’s also genuinely suspenseful and chilling.

Recommended.

‘Good Me, Bad Me’,
Ali Land,
Michael Joseph, 2017, ebook ARC
Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.