Penguin Random House
The end is almost nigh for holiday book recommendations. Friends in my WhatsApp group have been sharing their picks for plane/beach/bus/home-because-who-needs-a-holiday-anyway reads, the latest being Good Me, Bad Me, which I recently flew through on a trip to typical summer holiday destination, rainy Edinburgh. A short flight usually means not a lot of reading time, what with the first few minutes spent shoving your suitcase in a cabin hold at least five feet away from your seat, and then waiting anxiously for the plane door to finally close so you can release the anguished breath you’ve been holding in the hope that a talkative stranger won’t be sitting beside you. Luckily this is the type of book that boasts short, addictive chapters that keep you turning the page while giving you plenty of handy places to pause in such cases as purchasing an over-priced wine from a long-suffering Ryanair flight attendant or letting your unwanted seat mate out for their third toilet break of the fifty minute journey.
I digress. Even though it’s in the holiday read vein it deals with interesting subject matter and important mental health issues, wrapped up in a hair-raising and perhaps deliberately over the top execution. Told from the point of view of Annie, alias Millie, a teenaged foster child who is preparing for the horrific and very public court case of her shockingly evil mother, the story involves mystery, suspense, repulsion and genuine fear of disturbing twists in human nature. Millie is a complicated character and maybe unreliable narrator, set up in the prologue where she has just given her mother up to the police after years of personal abuse. The crimes that her mother will be tried for are appalling, and my skin did crawl at the tentative reveals of Millie’s suffering as both a victim and an unwilling accomplice.
Only 15 years old, Mike, her foster father who is also her appointed psychologist encourages her to attend school with his terrible daughter Phoebe. Though Mike is supposedly a mental health professional he fails to see just how awful Phoebe is, diagnosing her as a typically hormonal teenager with standard issues with her over-medicated, distant mother Saskia. Phoebe is automatically jealous of the attention Millie is given; while she’s in the dark about Millie’s tragic past, she does know that she’s a foster child in need of special care, and yet still Phoebe goes out of her way to badly bully her father’s charge, with the help of her posse of equally frightful friends.
Millie deals with her bullying with an eerie calm. She has been brought up to wear a mask, to pretend at all times, and Phoebe’s behaviour towards her pulls this mask down further. I was willing her to tell Mike in her sessions with him, so that Phoebe could be exposed for the nasty piece of work she was, but Millie is incapable of asking for help, for properly trusting people, and the inner struggles created as a result of her mother’s inherent wickedness are only revealed to the reader and not to the people within the story who can finally set her demons free.
While Good Me, Bad Me is a psychological thriller with jump scares aplenty, at its heart is a treatise on the poor treatment people, especially young people, with troubled backgrounds and serious psychological trauma receive. Millie is kind hearted and clever but is convinced and terrified that she may be intrinsically bad. As she tries to be good, glimpses of her struggle appear, and the more desperate she feels the more morally ambiguous her choices in how to deal with things become. There’s a question of nature versus nurture in the telling of the story, both in Millie’s initial upbringing and the care she is receiving from the flawed Mike, useless Saskia and troubled Phoebe. As well as successfully creating a highly complicated and compelling heroine (or should that be anti-heroine?) author Ali Land is an expert in pacing, and the climactic chapters will have you so swept up you’ll forget that there’s a loud child kicking the back of your cramped seat in arrhythmic intervals.
- First published in The Tuam Herald on 6th September 2017