"I can do life after you."
I'll admit to a fascination with true crime and fictions based on real horrendous events, but every so often I'm tantalised by a thriller. My local bookshop is the Tesco superstore, which regularly offers 2 for £7 on most fiction, and Good Me Bad Me is the first of two I'll be reviewing after a long stint of only reading manuscripts submitted to the publishing company I work at.
This isn't your run of the mill thriller -- this is less about finding a killer or a missing child, but rather about what happens after. Fifteen-year-old Milly is placed in foster care after she reveals to the police that her mother is responsible for the torture and murder of nine children. Milly will take the stand to testify against her mother, but in the meantime she must navigate a new school, a new home, a foster sister who resents her intrusion, and her own ambivalence towards a mother that only taught her to love the wrong way.
"And blood is thicker than water."
The prologue immediately turned me cold and not in a good way: it felt soppy and overwrought, clichéd writing that I worried would run on over the 350-odd pages. If I were you, I'd skip the first page entirely, as it only conjures ideas of a The Lovely Bones pastiche. But while both books concern the aftermath of adult-on-child murder, Good Me Bad Me is blunt and brutal, and the narrative of the main novel is much more engaging than the prologue.
The details of the crimes are omitted: Milly is an observer through the peephole rather than a participant, and those episodes are not something she cares to relive. While individual events are mentioned -- such as the origin of a scar on her arm -- they are not dropped to shock, but rather seem to have melded into one "life" that she must leave behind. Milly prepares to take the stand as prosecution witness against her mother, now possibly the most infamous women in the country. Her anxieties about the upcoming trial are predictable, but was she more than a terrified bystander?
"'It doesn't leave Milly in a very nice position wondering what it is they want to ask her.'
I have a feeling I know. A bad feeling."
As the tense relationships in the foster family develop, I found myself intrigued to experience the struggles of a foster child to integrate from their point of view. I grew up in a house that took in foster children for about thirteen years, but I remember my own feelings of injustice that other children were taken precedent over my parents' own. Naturally a foster child will require more support in order to not only deal with living in a new home but also overcome trauma from their previous family, but as a teenager I found it difficult to be sympathetic when these foster children lashed out or didn't behave as I expected them to. I could therefore identify best with Milly's antagonist, foster sister Phoebe, who vies for her parents' attention.
"Mike and Saskia have decided I'm the last foster child they'll have until Phoebe finishes her A levels. She has no idea how lucky she is and how much I wish there was room for us both."
Initially friendly, or at least polite, Phoebe quickly becomes much more abrupt when she meets her best friend Izzy. "You know he can't help himself when it comes to strays," Phoebe tells Izzy, a slight that cements their friendship and places Milly firmly as the outsider (14). Phoebe, jealous of how much time Milly monopolises, becomes spiteful and cruel, and her reactions form an interesting contrast with Milly's. Phoebe has her own desires to hurt -- not just her enemies but those weaker than her -- that could easily be compared to Milly's mother, both of them taking revenge against perceived slights and disadvantages. Phoebe is focussed on physical pain and fear, such as burning her friend with a cigarette or shaking a girl high up a rope. But Milly is not like Phoebe or her own mother: she is calculating and goal-orientated, making insidious adjustments -- cigarettes in a makeup bag, hiding keys when Phoebe has a curfew -- so that figures of authority mete justice and her own role remains undiscovered.
"A single finger across her throat. Eyes fixed on me. Dead meat. Me. Dead meat.
The writing style is unusual for the genre, an elision (but not total lack) of speech marks and clumsy "he asked, she replied" that makes the text sharper and more life-like. Milly's own interjections offer an insight into her state of mind, her personality and her history, but even in these she is restrained, an enigma that never gives too much away in order to protect herself.
"I've weighed up my chances. Eighty per cent genetics, twenty per cent environment.
One hundred per cent fucked."
There are some elements of writing that jarred with me. At first Milly thinking of her mother as "you" throughout the novel felt contrived, but as the narrative progressed I became drawn into a sense of "us against the world" and even folie a deux. Some phrases, such as "large and heavy the book is" (91) feel clunky and uncomfortable, but they are the exception, and overall Good Me Bad Me draws you in to a protagonist that is not only a victim but a survivor. Her struggles, including her ongoing self-harm and experiences of bullying, are unromanticised, and although the climax was unexpected, perhaps its potential had always lurked in my mind. A great book that will stand up to repeat reading.