There was something about it that jumped out at me. I’d told myself I wasn’t going to buy any more books for a while, because my to-read pile (well, my three to-read piles, if we’re being accurate) is really rather large.
But the title – beside myself, all in lower-case font – and the bright blue cover, and the little stick person on the side, intrigued me.
Oh well, I thought, why not?
And I got home, and I was tired because things are tiring at the moment, and I ran a bath, and I thought, Maybe I’ll read the nice new book instead of the forensics book that’s next on my list.
So I did. And it was Good.
beside myself by Ann Morgan
beside myself is a story about Ellie and Helen, who are identical twins. As children, they do almost everything together and few people can tell them apart – except that the twins themselves know Helen is always the leader.
They don’t dress identically – Helen wears her hair in a sensible plait and dresses in the latest trends, Ellie wears her hair in childish bunches and dresses in whatever her mother can find – so this is the only way most people know who is whom.
Then, one day, they decide to switch. Just for a little while, just to see what would happen.
But once Ellie has a grasp on Helen’s power, she doesn’t want to switch back. A trick that was supposed to be a childish joke for a few hours follows them throughout the rest of their lives, with the real Helen – who is now called ‘Ellie’ by everyone around her – spiralling uncontrollably into despair through a series of life events that are at least in part related to the switch.
The front cover of the copy I have says it all, really:
The first part of the story, just after the girls have switched, is fascinating. It’s kind of a metaphor for a lot of things; for how we don’t notice the subtle ways we treat certain people differently, even if we insist that we see everyone as being equal. It could just as easily have been a book about racism, or sexism, or how we treat people with disabilities.
Because on the surface of it, Helen and Ellie are twins, right? They’ve had the same upbringing by the same parents, the same good stuff and bad stuff has happened to them. Sure, they’ve had a couple of things happen to them individually, and there are a few personality differences, but beyond that, the basics are the same.
So it stands to reason that everyone treats them the same all the time, because they’re equal. How much more equal can you get to someone else than being their identical twin, after all?
Helen’s always held this opinion, and she’s always been convinced that Ellie’s whining about people’s preferential treatment of Helen has been just that: whining.
But now that the roles are reversed, she sees that a lot of the things she takes for granted day to day – being given the benefit of the doubt, having more choice in how she dresses, people just assuming she’s “good” – are not mirrored in the life of her twin.
And as she gets older and moves into adulthood, still living her twin’s life, this starts to really haunt her.
The story is told from the perspective of the twin who was originally Helen (the “good” one), but has now switched to being Ellie (the “useless” one). There are some hard-hitting relatable bits:
“It’s an amazing secret to discover: the power of not caring, of having nothing to lose. It opens doors, it wins respect. It means people don’t mess with you because they know that if push comes to shove and then to rolling, biting and kicking on the playground tarmac, they’ll be worrying about how they’re going to explain this to their mums while you will be thinking of nothing at all.
You don’t care if you hurt them and you don’t care if they hurt you and – weird, isn’t it? – that means you hardly ever get hurt. And even if you do, it doesn’t matter, because you’re not really there. They can’t touch you.”
Ellie is exactly the kind of character I love. Complex, interesting, fighting her demons and sometimes losing, she lurches through the book with a desperate edge, a need to get out the other end of whatever this hellhole is.
But Helen has her relatable moments too:
“If you ask people about me they will tell you that I am one of the loveliest presenters to work with. I have made a point of being that. Always.
I have studied what people like and made myself fit it. It is one of my special gifts. Again, I am not saying this to be arrogant or difficult. I just need you to know the reality of who you’re dealing with – a person who is extremely conscious of everything.”
Of course, it’s not all darkness and fighting. Even Ellie’s life starts to look up at certain points, when she moves away and gets a job and finds a place to live. But the past affects you in strange ways, as Ellie so eloquently explains:
“You get addicted to a series where a group of amateur seamstresses go head to head to win a contract to design a day-time TV presenter’s wedding dress… At odd moments throughout the day, you find yourself thinking about the programme, wondering who will win.
It feels luxurious to have the headspace to give to such things, to be able to get excited about something so wonderfully trivial. You hug it to yourself and look for opportunities to gossip about the show as you’ve heard other people do on buses and in the corner shop. When you do, a bit of you stands outside your head watching, marvelling at how normal you sound.”
I have never before seen this so perfectly described. And it gave me insight into something in my own life which I’d never been able to put into words.
I used to watch The X Factor. I loved it: the triviality of it, the glittering lights, the people parading on and off the stage, the makers and breakers of fortunes.
Was it the most important thing in my life? No.
And yet, when my ex-husband repeatedly tried to stop me from watching it because he disapproved, it provoked a deep feeling of desperation. I didn’t want to stop, and not just because I resent being told what to do in my own house. I didn’t want to stop because for most of my life to that point, I hadn’t had anything so trivial to care about. It’d all been huge: big situations, giant obstacles, dark heavy things that had to be carried and worked on and Discussed.
This was one of the few things I’d ever had in my life that wasn’t like that. And it did feel luxurious to me, to have this mainstream, ultimately not very interesting programme to think about and chat about with my colleagues over lunch. Because I’d never had that before. I’d never experienced the trivialities that come with a lot of people’s lives. And I don’t mean that in a bad way: I think we require certain trivial things to balance out the heavy stuff that all of us have to deal with from time to time. Perhaps I just see it like that because it’s been magnified in my own experience.
But every time I tried to explain it – to tell him how important it was for me to do this one silly thing – it sounded ridiculous even in my own head. More so once it’d left my mouth and was floating in the air in front of a serious man who once refused to work the bar at a Robbie Williams concert because he found the music “philosophically void”.
There is room for seriousness, of course there is. Most of my life is quite serious. But frivolity and triviality are luxuries that (like so many things) can only be truly appreciated when they’re taken away.
Anyway, back to the book.
As you can tell, I loved it. I found the writing style gripping, the storyline fascinating, and the characters intricately detailed and realistic. It alternates chapters between the twins’ lives as children and adults, and each thread ends up at the same place in the final chapter.
It is, in many ways, an example of the perfect novel. I closed it and held it in front of me for a moment, savouring the feeling of an excellent story worming its way down inside me to join all the other favourites that sit in my mind and keep me company like old friends.
I definitely think you should read it. You can buy a copy here.
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