Anything You Do Say by Gillian McAllister

The title of this one kept confusing my brain, because for some reason I kept mentally inserting a comma between ‘do’ and ‘say’: Anything You Do, Say. That’s not the title. The title is Anything You Do Say, taken from the classic police caution we’ve all heard a million times in crime dramas (but hopefully not real life).

Getting past the title, however, the book itself was a lot of fun.

Do you remember being a kid and reading those Goosebumps books which let you choose your own ending? I think about them every time I have to remember the number 132 for any reason: in Escape From The Carnival Of Horrors, the character recites a little rhyme on page 41: “132. 132. I picked red instead of blue.” Later in the book, if you can still remember the rhyme you have to turn to page 132, which gives you the ending you chose. Considering I can still remember it over twenty years later, I think it worked as a strategy.

Anyway, this book is a lot like those, except you don’t get to pick the ending, but you do get to see how things might have turned out via two parallel courses of action. I love a good possible-universes story: I never get tired of the multiverse trope in Star Trek, and I like less sci-fi-ey versions of it in other forms of fiction too.

These were so good.

Anything You Do Say begins with an experience most of us ladies will have had at some point: encountering a creepy man who’s juuust creepy enough to make you genuinely scared that he might follow you home or something. Joanna meets one of these on a night out, and it prompts her and her friend Laura to leave the bar soon afterwards.

They part ways and Joanna wanders towards the canal; they’re in Little Venice, London (I do like books that are set in places I recognise). Then Joanna hears footsteps behind her and sees a pair of trainers that look like the ones Sadiq The Creep was wearing when he grabbed her arse and shoved his (thankfully still clothed) penis at it earlier on. In a fug of panic, Joanna lashes out as he reaches her position and shoves him away from her, at which point he tumbles down some steps and lands brokenly at the bottom.

Shit, is he still alive? Maybe. Maybe not. But should she stay and call for help, or should she leave him there and try to pretend it never happened? Both options seem to have their advantages.

This is where the story splits: Joanna making two decisions, and the chapters alternating throughout the rest of the book based on what she decided to do. I read it as it was laid out, switching between ‘Conceal’ and ‘Reveal’ as I went; you could equally read all the ‘Conceal’ chapters followed by the ‘Reveal’ ones, if that’s more your style.

It was, of course, tantalising. We all have those what-ifs, don’t we? It’s the basis of one of my favourite poems, in fact: Whatif by Shel Silverstein.

I find it fascinating to think about those crossroad moments in life and what might have happened if I’d taken the opposite route. In my life there have been several:

  • At seventeen I had enough money saved to either leave home (and my mother’s cult, and my entire social network), move to London and start anew… or learn to drive, buy a car, go to university just up the road, and put off the emotional turmoil of leaving everything behind for a while longer. I chose the first option.
  • At eighteen I had the option to either take the record deal I’d just been offered… or take a place on a psychology of religion research project at Oxford University, giving me the opportunity to skip the BA-MA-PhD train and jump straight to researcher status. I chose the second option.
  • At nineteen I’d just broken up with my boyfriend. He made me an album of songs and wrote me a beautiful letter on a scroll, all tied with pretty string and left in my pigeonhole at uni. I could either stick to my guns and stay single, or I could cave in to the temptation of romance and give it another go… and ultimately get married. I chose the second option (and then, predictably, got divorced a few years later).
  • At twenty-five I was offered a stupidly large amount of money to stay in a job I disliked, in an industry I hated, when I handed in my notice and said I was going freelance. Again, I could either stick to my guns and leave, or I could cave in and stay. Happily I’d learned my lesson, so I chose the first option.

I sometimes enjoy doing little thought experiments in which I consider how my life might have been if I’d chosen another option. In hindsight I don’t regret most of them, and even the ones that probably weren’t especially wise certainly taught me some useful life lessons. But it’s fun to think about how different my life would have been if I’d become a pop star instead of a psychologist of religion (even writing that seems crazy now, but it really was on the table for a while); or what might have happened if I’d never got back together with my then-boyfriend. My life would have been so different; would I have been different too? In some ways, sure; but how much, I’ll never know.

Yes I did wear a black veil and a dead crow headpiece at my wedding.

And then there’s my friend and our parallel lives. I have this one friend about whom I feel that we’re kind of destined to be friends. Or I would, if I believed in destiny. Which I don’t. But sometimes life makes things seem to be true even if we don’t intellectually entertain them.

She and I nearly lived parallel lives in different countries: I was offered a free place at uni in her country right when she was coming to mine to do her degree, so we could have ended up leaving our families and friends and old lives behind and living in parallel but never knowing one another. At one point she considered a career which would have put her on the same path as one of the careers I nearly went into, too: perhaps we would have met, or perhaps our lives just would have run alongside one another’s. As it happened, we both ended up in the same place at the same time, so we met and got to know each other and became good friends, and in some strange way I feel like this is the case in every universe in which we both exist.

But now I’m getting all metaphysical, and this is a book review.

Anything You Do Say shows how one action (or inaction) can change your life in huge ways. It shows how some of the strands in your life might end up being there regardless – and it also shows the impact you can have on other people. I think this last point is particularly interesting: not only do Joanna’s actions affect her own life, they also change things in other people’s lives. Not just her boyfriend, whom she lives with, and on whom you’d expect it to have an effect, but also other people. Her best friend Laura has a lot of existential thoughts in the ‘Reveal’ chapters of the book: Joanna’s course of action makes her consider her own life and what she takes for granted. But when Joanna conceals what she’s done, Laura doesn’t get the same opportunity to reflect. In some ways this makes her happier, but it also makes her less mature as a person.

I’m waffling on about this book so much that it’s obvious I think you should read it, even if all it does is make you think about some of your own crossroad points and what you did. And since we’ve already been poemy in this post, I’m going to end with a poem about choices that’s shared so often it’s pretty much a cliché now, but I still love it.

Tell me about some of your crossroad moments.


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