Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

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I’ve been meaning to write this review for a while and it’s a measure of how much I enjoyed this book that, although I finished it some time ago, it has stayed with me. I had come close to buying the book when I saw it in my local bookshop but was lucky enough to win an audio copy on Ann Morgan’s blog, and can definitely say that I will be buying anything she writes in the future without hesitation. Just a quick note before I continue my review – usually I would include quotations from the book but as I listened to this book rather than read it I didn’t record many and I’ve had to take liberties with the punctuation for those which I did note down.

The book is about twins Helen and Ellie, who one day play a game where they swap clothes and identities. But the game backfires when Ellie refuses to swap back and has dire consequences for Helen who is forced into playing the role of her ‘stupid’ sister. The story is told from Helen’s viewpoint, both as a young girl growing up with a mistaken identity and as an adult where we see how far-reaching the consequences of this childhood event were. Rather than a linear narrative, the plot unfolds through Helen’s childhood narrative told from the point of the swap until she reaches adulthood and is interspersed with chapters showing Helen as an adult which begin with the book’s present and go back in time. The way the story is told leaves the reader with constant questions whose answers are slowly revealed, and had me racing to reach the end of the book.

A story of mistaken identities is not a new one and sounds simple, but the book deals with so many complex themes that I was guessing what the outcome would be until the very end. The book put the reader through many moral conundrums and I think that in this way I was hooked from the beginning. The first complication is that Helen, who takes the reader completely into her confidence, is not wholly likable. She has a poor opinion of her sister Ellie; “I’m the good one because I was born first” and likes to invent harsh punishments to discipline her. When the identity swap went wrong I found myself more sympathetic towards Ellie but as the events of the novel unfolded it was impossible not to sympathise with Helen. There were points in the novel where I almost felt unable to carry on listening as I felt so sorry for her, but it never became unbearable and I loved watching as the many pieces of the puzzle fell into place. I’m not sure how Morgan did it, perhaps because I felt encouraged to censor Helen for her cruel treatment of her sister early on in the story and therefore had a vested emotional connection to the characters, but I really felt an emotional tie to Helen and, eventually, Ellie which was more much powerful than my usual involvement in a book.

Another particularly strong point of the novel was in creating an extremely powerful narrative voice, and I also have to commend the narrator of the audio version I listened to – Lisa Coleman – in doing such a good job. As a child, Helen made so many observances that made me think ‘yes, absolutely!’ and I think that capturing a child’s voice can be such a difficult thing to do well. Some of her statements also cast a light on her thoughts in a new way, such as when she says: “I want to get away and out of there, to unzip my skin and step into another me.” This moment was especially poignant as it happens just before the swap, and before Helen realises that she most definitely does not want to be someone else!

It’s difficult to find the words to do this book justice, so all I can do is to heartily recommend that you go out and read this (or listen to it) in order to see what it is I’m trying to say! I am still finding myself thinking about the themes and characters in this book many weeks after finishing it, and feel there is so much to discuss but I will end my review here to enable you to go out and discover it for yourself.

(Image from Goodreads)

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