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Book Review: Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Ali Land’s debut novel Good Me, Bad Me has as its narrator a distinctive female voice, one that grabbed this reader from the very beginning as she tells her story of escape and survival. This is a perspective which is fast becoming a trend going by my recent reads: victim lit or, perhaps more appropriately, survivor lit. I have a feeling that this is one book that’ll spark debate and it is ripe for wide-ranging, and heated, book group discussions. If you have the stomach for its subject matter.

‘NEW NAME .
NEW FAMILY.
SHINY.
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…

Where Good Me, Bad Me works best for me is where Annie/Milly tells us about what it was like living with her mother and the new life she has with her foster family while she waits to testify at the upcoming trial. Her voice demands that we listen to her and it’s fascinating to hear about her coping mechanisms while adjusting to a new home, a new (albeit temporary) family, a new school at which she’s bullied, the tentative moves she takes towards making friends, preparing for and having sessions with her foster father/counsellor and giving testimony during the trial. It’s interesting to see which battles she picks to fight and when she decides to bide her time and save her strength. Her reasoning of her current situation and past and the mental manoeuvres she undertakes to function and keep her mother’s voice at bay were interesting and, of course, you’re never entirely sure how much to trust her or her version of people or events.

I have to admit that I was less convinced by the fact that she’s homed with a specialist trauma psychologist, Mike, who doubles as her counsellor, and his family. I could understand that her case warrants someone with his skill-set because of the severity of the trauma she’s been through, but I still didn’t believe that she’d necessarily be placed with him. And that’s before we see that his family might not be the best environment for her in this delicate transitional period. It’s easy to say that teachers, and by the same token counsellors and social workers, can sometimes be the worst people at seeing what’s going on in their own lives, despite being able to spot the signs in the classroom or consulting room, but I struggled at times to accept that this was where Annie/Milly had ended up and that Mike is so blind to what’s going on, although obviously it made her situation and the story all the more compelling and involved as a result. But she is fighting on all sides with very little help or support: the sessions she has with Mike seemed pretty superficial to me and she had very little external contact or help, except for Joan, who accompanies her into court but is otherwise little present, and her art teacher, whose behaviour seems flighty at best and erratic or irresponsible at worst.

Good Me, Bad Me is a book you’ll want to talk about. I know I do. And there’s a great deal to talk about here: why a female serial killer is a less common but more unnerving prospect; how someone in a position of trust and/or in a caring profession can abuse that position; how we can prevent or protect children (and their parents) from becoming victims; where victims survive alive but damaged, whether that damage is lasting and irreversible, and how that manifests itself; the effects of a child’s separation from its parent(s), and vice versa; the bonds between mother and child, and especially the push and pull between mother and daughter; family loyalties and the betrayal of those; the search for a surrogate family and all the competing considerations that decide what is in the best interests of the child; the public front a family puts up and the difference between that and how it functions behind closed doors, and how that can sometimes mean a child is moved from the frying pan into the fire, or vice versa, as perhaps happens here; old school bullying and its younger sibling, cyber bullying; the whole nature versus nurture debate, whether we are a product of our upbringing or inherit traits from one or both parents, and if we can forge our own way in life or make better choices than our parents, once independent of that influence; and the battle between good and bad, or right and wrong, in everyone and how we justify or rationalise our choices.

The outcome of the trial and the way in which her new home life works out don’t come as a massive surprise but I’d still recommend reading Good Me, Bad Me for Annie/Millie’s voice and her thoughts and behaviour as a survivor, the mental gymnastics she has to play in her new life with all the fresh challenges that brings, and the promising new author behind it all that is Ali Land.

Good Me, Bad Me is Ali Land’s debut novel and was published yesterday by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin UK. It is available as an ebook and audiobook and in hardback from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can Follow Ali on Twitter. 

I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

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