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BOOK REVIEW: Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

BOOK REVIEW: Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Penguin|Michael Joseph
January 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Psychological Thriller

6/10

 

NEW NAME. NEW FAMILY.
SHINY.
NEW.
ME.

Annie’s mother is a serial killer.
The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police.

Dragged from your room. A red crease of sleep visible down your cheek, eyes foggy with the adjustment from a state of rest to a state of arrest. You said nothing. Even when your face was mashed into the carpet, your rights read out, their knees and elbows pressed into your back. Your nightie rode up your thighs. No underwear. The indignity of it all.
You turned your head to the side. Faced me. Your eyes never left mine, I read them with ease. You said nothing to them, yet everything to me. I nodded.
But only when no one was watching.

But out of sight is not out of mind.
As her mother’s trial looms, the secrets of her past won’t let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name – Milly.

I’ve managed to keep your night-time visits a secret so far. The fact you come as a snake, underneath the door. Up into my bed. Lie your scaly body next to mine, measure me. Remind me I still belong to you. I end up on the floor by morning, curled in a ball, the duvet over my head.

A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be.
But Milly’s mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water.
Good me, bad me.
She is, after all, her mother’s daughter…

My heart hammers all the way to registration. Miss Kemp, too busy being ‘involved’, failed to see the gesture Phoebe gave me as we left the lockers. A single finger across her throat. Eyes fixed on me. Dead meat. Me. Dead meat.
As if.
Phoebe, darling.

 

 

There is a lot of talk about how this is set to be “one of the most extraordinary, controversial and explosive debuts of 2017”, and to be fair there is a lot here that pushes boundaries.

This is a story centered around the daughter of a serial killer; a female serial killer who steals and kills children and abuses her own children. Milly, the daughter, is bound to be damaged after the way she was brought up, and it’s clear for the reader to see in the way she interacts with those in her new, protected witness life, clear in the way she speaks, the words she writes, the fact that this whole book is essentially a letter to the mother who never treated her like mothers should.

It’s the chapter on the children of psychopaths that interests me the most. The confusion a child feels when violence is mixed with tenderness. Push and pull. A hyper vigilance, never knowing what to expect, but knowing to expect something. I recognize that feeling, I lived it every day with you.

There are definitely some things alluded to (though not actually said outright) that are controversial and which would leave many a reader squeamish if said outright, but unfortunately these same things, when the author avoids details at any cost, somehow dull the whole experience.

  • There is talk of a room Milly’s mother called The Playground, but beyond knowing that she locked the stolen children in there, that there was a mattress and some toys she had snuck in when her mother wasn’t looking, and that the children never leave this room alive, we never do learn if there is more to the layout than this, or if it’s the activities Milly’s mother undertakes that give the room its name. 
  • There is talk about Milly being ordered to share her mother’s bed, and allusions as to the kind of abuse that would entail, but there is no clear discussion of whether the killer puts her victims through the same sexual abuse, or if she simply kills them after beating them/beats them to death.
  • There is quite a bit of “will she/won’t she” with regards to Milly turning out like her mother, to the point that, as far as this reader is concerned, plot twists that actually happened weren’t surprising or shocking.

Of course none of these things are pleasant to read about, but people don’t pick up psychological thrillers because they want a pleasant read. They pick these books up because they want to be kept on their toes, and they want to be shocked at the depravity of psychopaths. Again, this book goes some way towards this, but it pulls back at the last moment, before plunging over that cliff into the truly controversial.

There’s also the fact that Milly’s therapist is her foster father.

What if I’m like her, I asked him, what if I inherit it? Monoamine oxidase A. The enzyme for violence. If it’s in her, it’s likely it’s in me, but he told me I’m nothing like you, he knows that for sure. I’m not certain I believe he meant it, or if he believes it himself.

One can maybe see why the people in the story would have been okay with this, given the highly secret nature of who Milly is, and the high levels of stress she has been subjected to, suggesting she would need round the clock access to a professional head-shrinker. But there are SO many problems with this.

  • The whole point of a therapist is that they’re someone you can feel comfortable telling anything to, without fear of judgement or worrying it will affect your home life. Milly is offered no disconnect between the two.
  • This girl has come from a situation that would leave her either feeling completely rejected and rebellious or desperately seeking a family fill-in. In this situation it’s the latter, but either way, this is not conducive to a good doctor/patient relationship. She might not be 100% honest with an external therapist, but she sure as hell isn’t going to be honest with the person she is hoping will take her in.
  • It’s just not ethical, and most decent therapists wouldn’t even consider it because of the blurring of the lines.

As mentioned above, Milly has an interesting way of putting words together. At the very beginning, before the mention that she was in year 11, and discussions of her impending 16th birthday, it felt to this reader that she was perhaps half that age.

This way of speaking did lead to a certain loss of seriousness, especially since, by the end, I couldn’t help but re-read these phrases with Yoda’s voice playing in my mind.

Large and heavy the book is, a lot of chapters.

THANKFUL NOW, YOU SHOULD BE, FOR THE LESSONS I TAUGHT YOU, ANNIE.

Thrown by my defiance, they are, I see it.

Perhaps this was a way of showing how much her mother still affects the way she thinks, with certain phrases being put in such a way that has been tied to her mother and nobody else in the book, but one can’t deny that it is disconcerting and does pull the reader from the story.

All in all this was a very quick read, and definitely engaging and intriguing, but for a novel that claims to be so controversial, it was largely typical of a psychological thriller, and therefore rather lacking in the shock department.

BOOK REVIEW: Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

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