As a thriller fan nothing gets me going as much as reading or seeing something I haven’t read or seen before. Admittedly this can be quite a task for an author since thriller novels and films abound, with new ones coming out seemingly every day. So when I saw Good Me Bad Me I was immediately intrigued by the blurb which promised all the right things. And I’m very happy to say that Land did not disappoint. Good Me Bad Me is both a gripping read and a book that will make you think. Thanks to Michael Joseph and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 12/01/2017
Publisher: Penguin UK - Michael Joseph
SET TO BE ONE OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY, CONTROVERSIAL AND EXPLOSIVE DEBUTS OF 2017 - for fans of quality psychological suspense and reading group fiction: once you read this book you'll want to talk about it . 'NEW N A M E . NEW F A M I LY. S H I N Y. NEW. ME . ' Annie's mother is a serial killer. The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police. But out of sight is not out of mind. As her mother's trial looms, the secrets of her past won't let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name - Milly. A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But Milly's mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water. Good me, bad me. She is, after all, her mother's daughter... Translated into over 20 languages, Good Me Bad Me is a tour de force. In its narrator, Milly Barnes, we have a voice to be reckoned with, and in its author, Ali Land, an extraordinary new talent.
‘But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.’
Carson McCullers (1917-1967)
This is the quote that starts the book and, in many ways, sets the tone. At the centre of this novel is the question of Annie/Milly’s heart and what is in it. The nature vs. nurture debate has spawned not only dozens of academic discussions but also a whole range of literature. Humanity is fascinated with whether it is, at the core, intrinsically good, or if there is an innate ‘bad me’ which is only waiting to come out. Philosophers such as John Locke have argued for the child being a ‘tabula rasa’, a clean slate, upon which external influences start acting from the moment of its birth. So was it the belief of Rousseau that warfare and aggression are learned, and not innate. We find traces of these arguments in novels such as Jane Eyre in which Lady Blanche speaks of children with ‘bad blood’. Even Harry Potter addresses this when Dudley’s aunt monologues about how ‘if there’s something wrong with the bitch, there is something wrong with the pup’. What makes the latter of the two examples fascinating, and relevant, is that they seem to argue for a combination between nature and nurture. There is something of ‘bad me’ that is simply in all of us, in our blood, yet nurture has a major role to play in bringing it out. This cross-section within the debate lies at the heart of Good Me Bad Me. It explores to what extent evil is something that works upon us or from within us, whether bad things that have happened to us can make us do bad things too, or whether we secretly wanted to do those bad things all along.
Good Me Bad Me is filled with women of all ages and most walks of life. Evil serial killers are usually played by men in films or TV shows, with the rare female killer appearing as an extra special, scary treat. Very often her crimes are either sexual or against children, and in the worst cases the two are combined. It is this fear of evil women which fascinates me and which Land also cleverly picks up on throughout Good Me Bad Me. There is an almost blind trust in women to be maternal and caring, to want to protect children and to not be aggressive or violent. It’s the Feminine Ideal which has somehow survived into the 21st century and still makes it hard for women to talk about things such as Post-Natal Depression, the desire to not have children or the aggressive traits in our own personalities. Because of this ideal, the thought of a woman who goes against all this has always been fascinating and is present in a lot of literary and cinematic tropes. She is in the Femme Fatale, in the Last Girl, in the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. Good Me Bad Me addresses some of the points that arise from this combined fear and fascination with evil women and does so through a varied cast of female characters. There are the teenage girls, violently obsessed with their own lives and almost negligently cruel to each other. There are the mothers who care too much or not enough, those for whom motherhood is a challenge but don’t dare admit it. There are the women and girls who use what they have to get what they want, and those who want and give, but never get.
Land’s world is not a pleasant one, but to a large extent it is a very honest one. It has become something of a trend to write about “complicated women”, but often these books lose all the nuance that is so crucial to them. Novels such as Gone Girl are simplified down to “the good housewife is actually a psycho, beware of all women” and are thereby crucially misunderstood. Naturally thrillers and crime novels are sensationalist in a sense, but they also address significant issues around how men and women are seen and see themselves. Good Me Bad Me strikes a very good balance between following the genre’s knack for the terrifying as well as giving some insight into the minds of the people it is serving up to the reader. Land throws in enough twists that both engender sympathy for all the characters, while also making a sword out of that sympathy. In the end Good Me Bad Me won’t tell you who is good and who is bad, it will give you enough material, however, to come to your own conclusions with your own justifications as to why.
Land’s writing throughout the novel is superb. First person narratives are always tricky and very often do not work. Not only does an author need to create a consistent voice for their narrator, that voice also has to change and develop throughout the story. In the case of thrillers or crime novels the extra task is added that the narrator on the one hand shouldn’t give too much away, but on the other hand also needs to reveal enough to keep the reader engaged. There is a very good reason as to why Good Me Bad Me had to be written in first person. Annie/Millie is the sole focus of this novel, it is her psyche, her mind, that is under the microscope, so to say. The way in which Land writes Millie, how she breaks up sentences, constructs thoughts and gives shape to internal processes is fascinating and really draws the reader into Millie’s mind. There is something fractured and hard, yet also vulnerable about the writing of the book which gives the reader a constant glimpse at what’s in Millie’s mind, even the things she herself would rather not know about.
I give this novel…
I absolutely loved Good Me Bad Me. I raced through it, not only because I was desperate to know what would happen but also because Land gives you no choice but to hurdle along until the bitter end. I’d recommend this to fans of Psychological Thrillers and Crime Novels.