A not so innocent girl in a twisted world. Not heavy on explicit violence but a psychological chiller.

Good Me Bad Me - Ali Land

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin for offering me a free ARC of this novel that I voluntarily chose to review.

This novel has Annie, a sixteen years old girl, as narrator and she tells us, in the first person, what happens when she reports her mother to the police. Her mother is a serial killer. Worse than that, she’s killed 9 children (allegedly). Whilst they are waiting for the trial, she is placed with a foster family and given a new identity (she becomes Milly). Her new family has its problems too. Mike, the father, is a psychologist and seems the most together in the family although he doesn’t realise he might be biting more than he can chew. Saskia, the mother, has problems in her relationship with her daughter and drinks and takes too many pills. Phoebe is a queen bee and not very nice at all. The dog is OK, though. Milly tries to fit in with the new family while getting ready for the trial. It is not easy.

I’m always intrigued by how writers use their narrators and here Milly (Annie) is pretty unreliable. She is very good at keeping under wraps some of the information and only revealing or suggesting other. She talks to her mother, whose voice she seems to have internalised (giving a clear indication of the effect such toxic people would have in the lives of those around them) and has a running conversation with her, convinced that her mother is still playing games with her. Milly insists on giving evidence because in some way that will give her closure (perhaps). She second-guesses not only her mother but all around her; a habit we guess must have grown from trying to survive in an extremely hostile environment.

Milly’s new life has difficulties, as Phoebe, who doesn’t know her circumstances, is jealous of the attention her father gives her and is quite bitchy. She bullies her and gets her friends to do the same at school. Milly manages to make a friend but her relationship with Morgan, a girl from a neighbouring estate, has very worrying traits and is not the healthiest.

The story is well written and paced, revealing information at a slow pace and keeping us intrigued. The subject matter is very hard, but the worst of the violence is psychological and there are few details given although we get to imagine terrible things. There is an air of threat and impending doom hanging over the novel that the author achieves by cleverly hiding some information and foreshadowing other events that not always take place.

The writer, who had worked nursing young people in mental health settings, creates a good plot and it’s difficult not to let our mind wonder and wander, worrying about what might come next.

I’ve read some of the comments about the novel and although most are positive, some of the negative ones deserve some discussion. Some people query the voice of the narrator, whom they feel is very articulate and adult-sounding for a sixteen-year-old. She is very articulate. She is also a girl who’s survived to incredible life events and who’s evidently very intelligent and even gifted (if we’re to judge by the comments of her art teacher) and she’s very good at self-censoring at manipulating others (and perhaps herself and us too). It is not easy to sympathise with her at an emotional level, although rationally it is impossible not to empathise and it might also depend on the reader (and our feelings change as we read on). There are comments about how Milly seems to behave too rationally and how somebody subjected to the abuse and trauma she has suffered would be much more affected. There is no fast and hard rule on that matter and one can’t help but wonder about Milly’s own personality. As she notes, she’s her mother’s daughter. Some of the reviewers felt that the rest of the characters are one-dimensional and have no depth but we need to remember the book is narrated from Milly’s point of view and she’s very self-centered and sees other characters only in the light of their interaction with her, not as individuals with other interests and full lives (her relationship with the art tutor is illustrative of that, although the school doesn’t do a very good job there either).

There are some points that are perhaps given too much emphasis (they are going to perform Lord of the Flies at the school, very aptly and that is subject of much discussion, therefore calling attention once more to children and violence), and we are given data ends up becoming a red herring or doesn’t go anywhere (Milly discovers information about some of the characters that makes us wonder what’s going to happen next and… nothing does). Personally, I think all of it helps create a picture of the central character as a contradictory individual, who is trying to not be like her mother but at the same time can’t help but want her mother’s approval, who perhaps has realised that being bad has its pluses too, as long as you don’t get caught.

The ending won’t disappoint, although I think many of us might have suspected what was going to happen but not perhaps how the author builds up to it, and as I said, we might have thought there was more to come.

In summary a disquieting and chilling book, that’s not heavy on explicit violence but explores the darker recesses of the mind of somebody affected by an extremely dysfunctional childhood. A word of warning, although there’s very little explicit violence, I know some readers prefer not to read thrillers where children are the victims and suffer abuse and that’s the case here.