Ann Morgan’s debut novel is a dark tale about a dysfunctional family and how one child struggles to survive the betrayal of those closest to her.
Morgan tells the story in flashbacks through the first person narration of Helen and, in alternate chapters, through a third person narration in the present day.
Helen and Ellie are six-year-old twins. Helen is the older and the leader; Ellie was deprived of oxygen at birth and is a little slower than her sister. They decide to play a joke by swapping identities to see if anyone notices. No one does and the twins are delighted by their prank. The next day Helen wants to go back to being herself but Ellie refuses. Helen protests that she is not Ellie but no one believes her.
It seems she is trapped in a joke that has long ceased to be funny. From being the leader of the duo, Helen finds herself becoming the “problem” child as she embarks on a self-destructive existence and ends up in an institution.
As Helen becomes estranged from her family and caught up in a downward spiral of drug abuse and mental health problems, Morgan’s pacing of the book is vital. When Helen is depressed, the writing slows along with her mood. When she goes into a manic phase, the writing speeds up and becomes intense and vivid, full of unconventional ideas, unexpected connections, and various voices that drown out reality. The pace is breathless and Morgan sweeps the reader up in the euphoria of the mania.
In the present day, Helen discovers that her sister is now a daytime television star, calling herself Hellie Sallis, a curious blending of the twins’ names. Helen’s work history has been more a case of keeping her head above water, including a spell as a prostitute. A brief job in an advertising company lets her artistic talent flower but her past catches up with her and she is once more plunged into despair. She is shaken out of her torpor by Nick, her sister’s husband, who needs her to speak to Hellie, now in a coma after a car crash.
Morgan’s novel is an ambitious undertaking which poses many questions about the nature of family and identity. Does Helen go off the rails because she is treated differently as Ellie, or was that always her path? Did the twins really swap identities? Disturbing, thought-provoking, and ultimately hopeful, this is a moving and accomplished piece of writing.
Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan. Bloomsbury £12.99