What exactly is identity? How do people’s expectations of us influence our self-concept? Do mental illnesses distort our inherent personality or are they just remote, extrinsic manifestations of dysfunction? These are some of the questions Ann Morgan attempts to investigate in her new novel.
Beside Myself is about twins Helen and Ellie who unknowingly alter the trajectories of their lives after playing an innocuous game as children where they swap identities with each other.
Helen has always been the leader among the two as she is older, smarter and more popular. In typical big sister bullying scenarios, she tries to one-up her younger twin, Ellie, and devises mean little games to teach her lessons. Ellie seems to have had a bit of stunted growth, due to which she is slow and developmentally challenged. Once, while they are playing their favourite game which involves duping people by switching roles, Ellie refuses to swap back. She seems to have realised the multitude of opportunities open to her when she is Helen and refuses to revert to being dumb Ellie. Thus begins Helen’s nightmare. The balance of power in their relationship has irrevocably shifted as Helen has become the inferior of the two. She begins to be treated differently by everyone. Her former friends now bully her, mistaking her for Ellie, and their mother, who used to treat Ellie as a slow child, now seems to be plain fed up of her repeated “lies” about being Helen. Helen grows up in this disconcerting, muddled space where everyone she knows is mistaken about her identity, and starts to come apart at the seams.
A psychological thriller about twins which falters due to sketchy characterisation and an overly-elaborate plot
This identity dissonance propels Helen into a downward spiral of self-destruction. We meet her later as a deeply disturbed individual who now identifies as “Smudge” and has to deal with the cacophony of voices inside her head which makes her already slippery grasp on reality all the more difficult. Ellie, on the other hand, is a prolific TV star who goes by the moniker “Hellie”, has a successful career and a perfect family life.
It is in her sorry state in the derelict flat that she lives in that Helen discovers her sister is in a coma, as a result of an accident she met with when she was on her way to meet Helen. This is doubly shocking for Helen as she has been estranged from her family, including her sister, since her increasingly disruptive and erratic behaviour in her teens.
The numerous names by which the twins identify themselves throughout the story — Hellie, Smudge, Trudy — serve no purpose besides needlessly confusing the reader. All these identities have no distinct voices and only serve as a sketchy detail to highlight the dysfunctional minds of the two girls. Helen and Ellie are both shown to have some acute mental dysfunctions, but I doubt I would have ever realised this if the writer had not explicitly stated it since there is absolutely no nuanced depiction of the disorders. The inclusion of the psychological disorders serves only as a plot device for Morgan and as a means to an end to justify the irrational actions of her characters.
With a protagonist who suffers so much physically and mentally, it is surprising how much of an unlikable character Helen comes across as. Before the pivotal swap, Helen’s treatment of Ellie is repugnant, even if we take her young age into account. She shows complete apathy to Ellie’s deficiencies and the bullying she is subjected to, so much so that Ellie’s schadenfreude, when the same treatment is meted out to Helen after the switch, seems justified. Helen begrudges other people’s happiness since she thinks she has been dealt a bad hand. Even after Helen falls hard on her luck, she gets a lot of chances to turn over a new leaf, but soon enough reverts to her old ways. There is little character maturation as she evolves from a child to woman, as even later on she continues to employ petty ways to try to get back at Ellie. The narrative voice is Helen’s all the way so we never get to know Ellie’s side of the story, but as Helen digs deeper into why Ellie did what she did, we begin to feel for the latter.
Morgan is a capable writer and there are occasional glimpses of her talent throughout the story. There are rare instances where she gives searing insights, such as when she points out the difficulties people with a history of mental illness encounter while looking for employment. However, frequent shortcomings in her plot development, together with the rather sketchy character portraits, do not allow her writing prowess to shine through in this book.
The story is composed in an intersectional narrative with part of it told in the first person by a young Helen, and the rest by the grown up, unhinged Helen, in the second person. This narrative style is counter-intuitive for a book that is billed as a psychological thriller. Since we already know what the future will hold for the young Helen, it strips the suspense. The novel comes off as more of a middling bildungsroman rather than a psychological thriller.
Furthermore, just because the book is supposed to be a psychological thriller does not mean it ought to be doused in as many dysfunctional situations and mental illnesses as possible. Throughout the story there are references to suicide, bipolar disorder, molestation, drug abuse and some schizophrenic symptoms thrown in for good measure — most of these without any cohesive backstories. Some of the plot twists require major suspension of disbelief, starting from the fact that Ellie is able to sustain her lie of swapping places for so long, despite the fact that she is intellectually challenged. Some other twists seem a bit too coincidental to be true and diversions from the main story lead to an overwrought plot.
Morgan tries to tackle hefty moralistic and psychological themes that require intricate three-dimensional probing, but what we get is a sophomoric take on grave issues. Beside Myself has a unique premise, but is let down by its weaknesses.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer and critic.
By Ann Morgan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 25th, 2016