Obviously, it was the title that intrigued me.

For her debut novel starring a serial killer who decides to murder her entire biological family, Mackie chooses Lady MacBeth’s demands to the witches as an epigraph:

‘Unsex me here, And fill me from the crown to the
toe top-full of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.’

Presumably this is intended to suggest Grace’s malevolent nature, but it doesn’t do her justice: Grace commits her own murders and they don’t send her mad. In fact, she is calm, unfazed by her uncle’s death throes and unmoved by her cousin’s gentle nature, set on a plan which is disrupted by a rather surprising development: her arrest for a murder she didn’t commit.

What’s it about?

When Grace Bernard discovers that her father disavowed her mother, forcing the pair of them to live in relative poverty while he enjoyed splashing cash around from his various businesses, she decides that her revenge will only be complete when his entire family is dead. Yes, you read that correctly. The book follows her progress as she ruthlessly dispatches several members of her father’s family. Can Grace achieve her plan? Why is she in prison? And – can she get out?

What’s it like?

Surprisingly unexciting. I love unreliable narrators, but Grace is simply sociopathic and judgemental; there’s no real sinister side to her nature. Yes, she murders people. Yes, she puts in a lot of effort to achieve those goals. But the twist, the oooh! moment that every good unreliable narrator should throw into the mix towards the end of the story, that doesn’t belong to Grace at all…

What I did enjoy was the way Grace’s perspective colours her view of other characters. When an older man offers up an undeniably un-witty comment that’s clearly repeated regularly, Grace ‘idly wondered if he had a wife who’d dearly like me to dispose of him too’. When she first sets eyes on her cousin, Andrew, she reflects on his appearance with distaste and concludes that, ‘a wooden necklace…suggested a gap year had been taken and decisively wasted’.

Her opinions are often entertaining, and Mackie delivers these with delight, as when Grace observes her grandparents being served steak and fries without having placed an order:

‘It must be the only thing on the menu they go for…never straying into foreign territory, never doing anything different, being small, staying nasty. And I got all of that just from steak, imagine what I could learn from their bookshelves. I’m kidding, they won’t have any books in their house.’

The bitchiness is fun, but it’s perhaps a bit like sugar or salt: excellent seasoning but best taken in small doses.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, this failed to convince me from very early on. No one loans a total stranger a car, surely? Maybe I’m moving in the wrong social circles. Grace is meant to be bitingly funny, but lines like, ‘Liking Goodfellas over all other films means the man has never bothered to cultivate a personality’ didn’t elicit even a mild smirk from me.

I’m a firm believer in having to be in the right mood for a book and it’s entirely possible that I simply wasn’t in the right mood for this one, but equally, I cannot believe in Grace recording a full, detailed record of her actual crimes while locked up for the one murder she didn’t commit. Again, this may be a failing of mine rather than the author’s; we all know sociopaths are incredibly arrogant, and Grace clearly believes she is the only human being fully worthy of the title, so perhaps it really wouldn’t register with a narcissist like her what an incredible risk she was taking.

I really enjoyed the ending and I love that Mackie is content to leave open to the reader what might happen next. The level of manipulation is high and the potential for further deaths is definitely present. I look forward to seeing what Mackie comes up with next.

‘How to Kill Your Family’,
Bella Mackie,
2022, The Borough Press, paperback