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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

On Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

Hannah Barnes
I recently read (or rather listened to, courtesy of audible) Ann Morgan’s Beside Myself - and I’m enjoying reading for pleasure, and exploring the texts, for the first time in a long time after finally getting over the four years’ worth of cramming I did as an English Literature student.  

I won’t just be reviewing the book however, so be warned; spoilers ahead, but if you’ve read Beside Myself (or know you never will) read on for what I hope to be a thoughtful deconstruction of the text and a considered review of its many themes.

Again, it’s been 5 years since I last stretched my literary claws, so I’m pretty excited to discuss Beside Myself in length - for no other reason than because I loved it! My time at university drained a lot of the natural enthusiasm I’ve always had for literature (chosen originally because I have such a passion for the subject) and I’m glad to see the written word wasn’t tainted for good by all the assigned authors and picking apart of my favourite novels.

So, back to the book in question – Ann Morgan’s, Beside Myself.

In short, the book centers around the life of a single female protagonist, using an unusual form of first person narration to flash back to her childhood and earlier times, and a second third person narrator telling her story in real time.

The book begins with the first person narrator telling the story of the swap – a game played between twin sisters; Helen and Ellie, when they are around 5 or 6 years old. The pair, whose father has recently committed suicide and whose mother is dealing with major depression, are left to fend for themselves over a summer away from school. The story goes that Ellie, the younger of the two twins, suffered a loss of oxygen during their birth and is therefore a little ‘slower’ than her sister Helen, who thus takes on the role of the ‘leader’ and ‘looks after’ her younger sister.

How well Helen enacts this role is questionable with ‘teaching Ellie a lesson’ being a favourite game for her and an older acquaintance Mary; they leave Ellie to find her own way home from the park, force her to eat an extremely questionable yogurt, and trick her into thinking they can fly over ditches whilst some error in her attempt causes her to fall again and again.

In order to cheer their mother up and bring her back to herself and them, Helen decides to play a trick on her; by pretending that she is Ellie and Ellie is Helen. Despite being identical twins, Helen isn’t sure the game will really work due to Ellie’s innate ‘Ellieness’; a state used throughout the book to refer to either twin, and other female family members, who exhibit non-normal states of mind, so the pair try out their trick on a couple of neighbours first, and are buoyed by their success.

A problem arises however, upon re-entering their home; with Helen in Ellie’s clothes and bunchys, and Ellie in Helen’s clothes and plaited hair, as they see that their mother has already been brought back to herself; or, rather, some odd version of herself in red nail polish that the girls do not recognise, by her new partner; Mr White. Their mother is in the process of moving her man into the family home and thus the game is sabotaged whilst the girls are still ‘dressed up’ as each other.

Helen wets herself in living room; a very ‘Ellie’ move and is berated by her mother before getting a chance to uncover her real identity and complete the game. Whilst, Ellie, on the other hand, finds she quite likes being the ‘favourite’ and refuses to own up to the swap. No matter how hard Helen tries she is unable to convince her mother of the ‘truth’ and having lost all her friends at school, her status as the ‘leader’ of the twins and her agency over Ellie, spirals into a life long battle with her own mind.

Despite this their Mother never softens towards ‘Ellie’; remaining cold and starched throughout the book. Lavishing love and affection on the new ‘Helen’ and dismissing all Ellie’s acts of rebellion as attempts to ruin the happy life her and ‘the scout master’ have now built together. The mother’s own mental health issues are not mentioned again by the first person narrator and just as the red nail varnish polished over any imperfections it found, she seeks to gloss over any inconsistencies in her new role as the ‘normal’ wife and mother.

Meanwhile, the present day, third person narrator recounts the original ‘Helen’s’ story as ‘Smudge’ now a vulnerable young woman, living in a dump of a flat on government support and suffering from extreme mental health issues. With no one but the voices in her head for company, she drinks herself into oblivion and remains waifishly thin, thanks to her cravings for booze and cigarettes taking priority whenever her giro comes in. 

When ‘Helen’ - now a daytime TV success story, calling herself Hellie - has a serious car accident and suffers a long term coma, her husband Nick turns up to drag Smudge back into her old life and we are taken along for the ride as Smudge attempts to uncover why Hellie did what she did, why her own life went so very wrong and whether or not the swap even happened at all.


One of the most obvious themes covered is that of individual identity; through the use of the swap and the way in which this changes both twins lives so drastically. Smudge, is the archetype of an unreliable narrator; being mentally ill, mentally incapacitated or a young child throughout most of the story and thus her own identity, and the identity of others as shown through her lens, cannot always be relied upon as fact. This is emphasized by the odd way in which Morgan uses Smudge's first person narration; Smudge narrates as though telling herself the story referring to 'you' rather than 'I' throughout the text; she has no idea who she is, and is therefore speaking both to herself and to her twin; both of whom have become intrinsically inseparable in Smudge's mind. 

This uncertainty is built upon by the blurring of names and identities throughout the book; Ellie, Helen, Hellie and even Ellouise, Hellies daughter, all have names which blend in and out of each other. This suggests that identity is a transitional thing, which can be merged and shared, but also that Helen and Ellie’s personal identities arose from their differences just as much as their similarities. They are each other’s other, with Helenish traits always resulting in privilege. The power given to the use of names by Smudge highlights them as identity markers, giving the phrase ‘what’s in a name’ heightened meaning in respect to this novel.

For Smudge, identity and name are intrinsically linked; both of which she believes were unfairly taken from her, and thus rather than maintaining her own identity – even under the brand of Ellie – she becomes more like Ellie, the more people treat her as Ellie.

In the later story, Smudge admits to inventing different identities for herself; Veronica is a reckless prostitute, Eliza a sensible home bird, Trudy a professional and successful graphic designer and finally Smudge - who is nothing. Smudge wears these names around her like amour; creating new identities to protect her from her own, until she is discovered, and loses everything. It’s interesting to note that once again, her identity is taken from her by someone outside of herself. A male colleague and lover, uncovers her identity as Ellie and thrusts the news upon her; destroying Trudy, exposing, then rejecting ‘Ellie’ and ultimately creating Smudge.

Another character to get the full spectrum of names within the book is Mr White who is also Arcala; stepping in to pluck the role of family leader away from the young Helen, and later on in Smudge’s story; Horace and Peeps. This shifting pattern of names threading through the book reflects who Mr White is to the different characters in the book and just as the world imposed Ellie’s identity upon a young Helen, each of the characters within Beside Myself assigns a different identity to Arcala, dependent upon their own perspective.

Morgan introduces many interesting and poignant themes’ into her book; Beside Myself, all of which are extremely relevant to today’s world. But the one which stuck with me most, was the search for a nuclear identity; a definite idea of who you are, that doesn't depend upon anyone else. Women rarely get given this version of identity within fiction; although there is a definite progress towards this thanks to books such as Morgans. It is also interesting to note that Morgan turns this idea on its head; giving her female protagonist and supporting characters the ability to impose identity upon the alpha-male of the story.

I wrote my dissertation on the idea of literary women; Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, each progressing the female journey to singular self-hood down the generations, and recently found this out to be something Sylvia Plath also advocated. Beside Myself, could quite easily sit alongside these texts; continuing the journey for all women, as we seek to find an identity for ourselves, a place to belong, and a space of our own even in the modern world. 

If this is too heavy - let me know in know in the comments, alternatively if you'd like to read more book reviews in this style, or recommend a book to me, get in touch!

Hannah Barnes / Author & Editor

I keep myself busy with my small business; The Loft Gifts, the period poverty charity I run; The Crimson Wave, writing here and for vaious platforms and a growing menagerie of household pets.


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