I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Friday, April 8, 2016

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

Ann Morgan is the author of the acclaimed book The World Between Covers, which she wrote about her year-long quest around the world via books. I'll just jump in now, because this is one of those books that will keep you up all night reading (it did me). Wow. I don't like to use such language, but this book is a real mind f***. Not for you the reader, but for the character. When twins Helen and Ellie are six, Helen talks Ellie into playing a prank on an elderly neighbor and switching their clothes and hairstyles (Helen wears hers in a plait, while Ellie has hers in two bunches) and pretending to be the other one. It's so much fun when it works that Helen thinks they should try to pull the prank on their mother. When they get home though, their mother has a surprise for them. Akela Greene, her new boyfriend, is moving in with them. Now it is time for the game to be over. But Ellie doesn't want to change back.  Helen tries to tell her mother about the switch and that she is Helen, not Ellie, but her mother does not believe her. Helen is the smart, well behaved, leader of the two. While Ellie is the slow, bad behaving twin who always needs to be taught a lesson, and whom, Helen finds out later, is prone to telling tales. But now, Ellie is acting just like Helen and all she can do is wait for Ellie to mess up like she always does.

Her one hope is that at school her friends will know who she is and Chloe, the one who works with Ellie, will as well. But Ellie convinces her friends that she is Helen and when she tries to explain to Chloe about the switch and how horrible the whole thing is, Chloe believes she is telling another tale. And that is when Helen begins to go down the rabbit hole. The teacher puts Helen in the dumb kids corner of the room to use Ellie's workbook from last year that she didn't finish and Helen watches as Ellie gets good marks and behaves well, just like she would. She watches as Ellie plays with her friends, as Ellie steals her life.  One day while hanging out in the park in the upside down tree, Helen's favorite spot, Ellie tricks her into staying while she leaves and Helen gets into trouble for going missing for a long time. Their mother takes Helen to a psychologist and at this point she has had it with no one knowing who she is, with living the wrong life, and she finds that well of anger deep inside of her and it erupts all over the place as she begins screaming and throwing everything around the office in a mad rage. She has effectively been trapped in a cage and put in a dungeon and everyone treats her like she is Ellie and soon she begins acting like the problem child Ellie was, only worse, because someone who has lost everything can be capable of anything.

The book swaps back and forth from the present to the past. In the present is a young woman named Smudge, who is really Ellie, and is living in a crappy flat in London trying to keep the voices in her head away. She has just come out of a long sleep after a marathon painting session, the kind where time ceases to exist. You could easily say that she just went through a manic episode, but lots of creative people do this. Of course, they don't also hear voices in their heads as well. Her phone is ringing and her mother is on the other end telling her that Hellie (as Smudge calls her) has been in a car accident and is in a coma, but Smudge just drops the phone and says nothing. Later, Hellie's husband Nick shows up at her door knocking on it trying to get her to talk to him, but she just can't deal with that. The next day she goes to her ESA interview, where she lies about her not drinking and that everything is going well, when it is far from that and her caseworker is so happy about all the progress she has made, especially working in the community garden, which made it into the paper. She believes Ellie is ready to start looking for work, which would mean ESA would stop depositing money into her account every week, but Ellie hasn't picked up on this as she is trying really hard to appear normal. When she leaves, Nick runs into her on the street and in her attempt to run away from him, she runs into traffic and gets hit by a car and is sent to the hospital.

At school, Helen starts making up stories on the playground to get attention and sympathy from the other kids. She also starts to have darker thoughts about Ellie and ways to get her life back. Her mother and Akela have baby Richard, whom they won't let her touch, because of something they suspect she did. And when Mother, Akela, Ellie, and baby Richard sit together in the living room they look like the perfect family and no notices her anymore, even when she slips out of the house to go to the park by herself. Years pass by and the end has come for this school, which means a kind of talent show. Ellie recites a funny poem doing all these different voices, which is something Helen would have never done. At this point, Ellie has rearranged Helen around to something new, so Helen starts to refer to her as Hellie. And Helen, herself has changed quite a bit. She escapes to the upside tree (which is such an appropriate name, since that's what her life has become) often and meets up with older kids who drink and sniff glue. And one day something happens that will shatter her mind completely, leaving her barely holding on to the pieces. She becomes more and more out of control as Hellie becomes more and more the perfect daughter. When she makes an attempt out of desperation to reach her mother, it almost works, but then her mother lashes out and calls her a monster and that she is toxic and will poison everyone and everything around her. She ends up getting a tattoo on the side of her forehead with the word monster on it. Now no one will ever be able to mix up her and Hellie again.

When Smudge wakes up in the hospital, Nick is there and he tells her that Hellie was on her way to see her when her car crashed. He really wants Smudge to go visit Hellie in the hospital and see if maybe listening to her voice will bring her out of her coma. Smudge tells him that the two of them can't be in the same room together and checks out and goes home. When she goes through her piled up mail, she sees a letter addressed to Helen Sallis in Hellie's handwriting, but she just can't look at it right then. When she goes to try to get cash out of the teller machine, she finds that ESA did not deposit the check and she's broke. Nick had been following her and was there when she passed out on the street and took her back to the doctor. Her wound got infected and she has a fever. He insists she come and stay at his house to recuperate, especially since she has no money. Her mother and Akela are staying there, but she doesn't meet her mother right away. She does, however meet Hellie's little girl, Heloise, who takes to her instantly, but whom Akela and her mother try to keep her away from, which doesn't work of course (how many little girls do you know that always do what they're told). Heloise is such a precocious and observant girl who shows Smudge the little grave where her dead twin lies.

Helen's life just continues to get worse for a while as she floats about lost at sea after her family has well and truly abandoned her. But as Rick tells Elsa "We'll always have Paris", Helen will always have Amsterdam. Then of course, as always, just when things are going well, the world crashes around her, and Helen (actually, after leaving home she changes her name many times, reinventing herself over and over again) becomes Smudge. Most everyone in this book seems to have an angle and is looking after themselves, willing to hurt anyone to get what they want, though not Smudge, she seems to be on the losing end of things too often.

Helen was diagnosed as manic depressive at one point in the book, which is a genetic disease. Helen and Ellie's dad was very likely manic depressive and committed suicide when they were four. The going theory (which some are challenging) is that you can carry the gene, but that it takes some kind of environmental event to trigger the gene to turn on. When you look at Helen's history it's chock full of childhood trauma that would have driven anyone mad even if they didn't have a genetic predisposition for it. Ellie does not get off so easy either. You have to ask the question why did she decide to keep up the charade in the first place? If she had the ability to behave and get good grades why did she not do just that? Close to the end of the book, you will experience a punch to the gut, because people are always able to surprise you, right up to the very end. The incredible thing, you will find, is that even when Helen/Smudge has been laid low and completely given up any hope of anyone believing her or of having a happy life, all it takes is a small match to be struck to light up that hope again in her. The human spirit is amazingly resilient.  Just talk to anyone who has gone though any horrid tragedy, such as the camps or the POWs. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how many times we swear we are giving up, we always seem to find our feet again.

The writing of this book is amazing and quite fascinating. When you read the parts that take place in the past, they are written in the second person (where a some general you is the focus of the narrator's story) and the part written in the present is written in the third person (where the narrator refers to the characters as he and she and can know whatever the author wishes them to know).  Ms. Morgan's unique and careful use of words that conjure up exactly the right thing, is amazing. For example: "And with that, she turned on her heel and bustled away up the ward, her shoes squeaking like basketball players dodging around a court....The sound of a team of basketball players ducking and feinting its way across the court came towards the cubicle."

While reading this book I wondered how Ms. Morgan was able to get the details of manic depression so spot-on accurate. It was like she was able to climb inside someone's head and take notes, or that she was maybe manic depressive herself. I don't believe I've read a more exact, precise, and authentic portrayal of someone with this disease. As far as I know, she is not manic depressive. When I got to the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, it shed a little light. She thanked her family for answering her medical questions and her friends and acquaintances on answering, among other things, questions about living with manic depression. As a person who has friends who are manic depressive, thank you, Ms. Morgan for caring enough to get the detail right. 

Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Beside-Myself-Ann-Morgan/dp/1632864339/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460040073&sr=1-1&keywords=beside+myself+ann+morgan

No comments:

Post a Comment