Thanks to Net Galley and to Bloomsbury for providing me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Beside Myself is a complex story of swapped identities. Two identical twins, Helen and Ellie, swap places, as a game, when they’re only six years old, and they never go back again to their original identities. Helen, the cleverer one, who used to bully her sister, becomes the clumsy one, with no friends, and the scapegoat and victim, and Ellie, becomes a new version of Helen. The novel questions what makes us who we are. Our names? The preconceived ideas others have from us? What we ourselves come to believe?
The story is dark and the way it is written adds to its harshness and to its subjectivity. The chapters alternate between two time frames, one the present of the story, told in the third person, and the other one told chronologically from the time of the swap, initially in the first person, and then, after an incident that makes Helen (now Ellie) dissociate from herself, in the second person. There is little doubt of who is telling the story (apart from perhaps at the very beginning, when Helen is in a state of utter abjection and discovers that her sister is in hospital, in a coma), and we get to live from inside of the protagonist’s head, and see from her point of view, the psychological states she goes through. We share in the character’s experiences, including her anger, confusion and her feelings of powerlessness. We experience the abuse, humiliation, rape, illusions and also her disappointments and dashed hopes. People consistently let her down and she feels trapped in a life and a fate that is not her own, although she has contributed to it. She’s become to embody the monster of her tattoo.
The book works well as a vivid portrayal of a complex mind confronted with an impossible situation, although some of the details of the story call for a degree of suspension of disbelief (and of course the story is subjectively narrated from the point of view of the one character and the reader can’t but wonder at times with her, if she might not have imagined the whole thing). I’m not sure if what happens at the hospital with her sister is to be taken literally (as it is medically not possible) but it is more important what Helen thinks and where that takes her. Considering the general tone of the novel, the ending is satisfying as it provides answers to many of the doubts and questions that plague the novel, and it also shows us the protagonist taking charge of her own life.
This novel is an uncomfortable read but a gripping one, and a novel that nobody will forget in a hurry. It is sure to take readers to places they have never been and they don’t want to be. And that’s one of the roles of good literature.