Beside Myself by Ann Morgan

Ann Morgan's Beside Myself starts with an intriguing 'what-if' premise. Helen and Ellie are twin sisters, still little girls. Helen is confident, capable and popular, while Ellie - born second, with the cord wrapped around her neck - is shy, withdrawn and struggles at school. One day, as a game, they decide to swap places ... but then Ellie refuses to swap back. Robbed of not only her identity but also of everyone else's positive perceptions of her, Helen flounders without her friends, her mother's approval and her perfect school record - while Ellie, in her new role as Helen, flourishes. The psychological impact on Helen, assumed by everyone else to be Ellie, is profound, and the rest of the book deals with the terrible fallout. When we meet Helen again as a dysfunctional, chaotic adult her true identity is so completely erased that she's taken to calling herself Smudge, as if that's all that's left of her.

Beside Myself is a book about a fundamentally fractured family, broken by loss, secrets and mental illness. As such, it can feel like a pretty bleak read: in the first few pages, I found it hard to read about Helen's bullying of the awkward, withdrawn Ellie, and then when their roles are swapped, the endless disappointments, cruelties and injustices that Helen suffers are equally depressing. It's powerful stuff, but sometimes pretty painful, and there's no real respite, so at times I wanted a little more variation in tone to stop the story descending into a fictionalised misery memoir. However, it's a fascinating exploration of the nature versus nurture debate.

Ann Morgan writes Helen's childhood narrative very convincingly from a child's point of view, with all the odd perceptions and quirks of language that you would expect from a little girl of that age. She also evokes the early 1980s very well without falling into the I Heart Nostalgia, do-you-remember-Spangles trap. When Helen becomes Smudge, her mental state - which has deteriorated to the point where she hears voices - is also convincingly rendered.

Although I wouldn't describe this as a psychological thriller - it reminds me more of something like Nathan Filer's The Shock Of The Fall or James Rice's Alice And The Fly - there is an element of mystery to it as we gradually uncover more and more information about the twins and their parents which help to account for some of the family's deep-seated problems and it was this that spurred me on to keep turning the pages when the relentless unhappiness of Helen's point of view threatened to halt my progress through the book. There are some elements of the story that stretched my ability to suspend my disbelief - in particular, a final revelation from the twins' mother, who is also the least credible of the book's characters - but overall I found this a gripping and powerful story, if a desperately sad one.