In British author Anne Morgan’s gritty new novel Beside Myself, six-year-old twins Helen and Ellie Sallis switch places as a game. Helen, the leader of the duo, becomes her sister, Ellie, who is the slightly slower twin due to birthing complications, and Ellie becomes the popular Helen. At first, it’s all fun and games, but what happens when Ellie refuses to switch back? Beside Myself tells the story of just that, how a game gone wrong can change lives forever.
The novel is told through two points of view: through Helen’s eyes, as well as a third person narration of the present day, in which “Ellie” lives alone in a run-down apartment and now goes by the name Smudge. The reader must piece together what is true or false about Helen’s story.
The reader follows “Ellie’s” descent into chaos as she starts to lose her grip on reality and her identity. For her whole life, Smudge was forced into believing that she was Ellie, with her family and friends ignoring her protests that she was Helen. Smudge ends up spiraling into substance abuse and delinquent behavior as a teenager, while her sister lives a life of popularity and success. Over the years, Helen, posing as Ellie, develops severe psychological problems due to her dysfunctional childhood, the switch, her father’s suicide and dealing with her mother, who mistreated Ellie and looked at Helen as the golden child. Eventually, she was institutionalized.
In the present day, Smudge suffers from mental illness, with her only comfort being her artistic ability. In stark difference, her sister has gone on to become a famous daytime television host and a minor celebrity, switching her name to “Hellie”, a combination of both twin’s names. When a call from Hellie’s husband Nick brings a shocking piece of news, Smudge’s past comes back to haunt her and she must deal with the pain of her sister’s betrayal, navigating through her dark past and ultimately overcoming it to achieve happiness.
This is a fast paced, dark and gripping novel with plenty of mystery. The novel touches on the themes of mental illness, family dysfunction, and growing up. It is truly interesting to watch Smudge’s character grow from a pathetic, deeply disturbed individual to a sympathetic character that the reader learns is really multidimensional. The frustration Helen had while trying to convince her family and friends that she was indeed Helen and not Ellie allows the reader to feel the emotions with her.
Beside Myself is also a heartbreaking story in that it delves into the long reaching effects of psychological trauma. From the get go of the novel, it’s clear the mother also suffers from mental illness (due to her own dark past) and that the girls did not receive the attention they needed as children. It is only when the mother remarries that she shows brief glimpses of happiness, a welcome change from her usual cold disposition. Despite that, she still deeply mistreats Ellie, and is a flawed and unlikable character, not giving Smudge the support she needs when she most craves it.
Another interesting character in the book is Hellie’s husband, Nick, with whom Hellie shares one child, Heloise. He too is hiding secrets involving his marriage to Hellie. When he must track down Smudge to tell her what happened to his wife, he has high hopes that the visit might just reunite the twins once and for all. Unlike most people, Nick shows Smudge kindness at times, although he is often exasperated with her unwillingness to reunite with her sister. He cares very much for his family, and is dead set on fixing the flawed relationship between the twins.
This book is oftentimes hard to read due to its dark nature and themes, which may upset some readers, and is not recommended for readers who can’t handle this genre. Beside Myself was a gripping, emotional and haunting read. While the focus of the novel was on Smudge and her life as “Ellie”, the story also had many other elements to it that opened up new plot twists and character developments. Beside Myself was at once a heartbreaking and hopeful novel that will keep the reader engaged and thinking until its end.