I'm going to preface this review by saying that, even after successfully making it all the way through this book, I still don't understand the abundance of 4 and 5 star reviews for this book.
Beside Myself is described as a "literary thriller", literary being shorthand for descriptive (but not quite prose) writing, and thriller.... I'm not sure. The book definitely ramps up toward the end, but it isn't an edge-of-your-seat what-will-happen-next thriller. By the middle I was invested enough to want to know Hellie's fate, but that was about it.
Hellie is Helen. Except she's not, she's Ellie. Helen and Ellie are six year old twins who swap places, a 'prank' of sorts, it's really Helen's idea, but suddenly Ellie begins to enjoy the privileges her twin's life affords her and refuses to finish the game and swap back. Helen is pushed into the "Ellie" box, where she is expected to be less than smart, to have some issues, which only makes it harder for people to listen when she insists that she isn't Ellie, she's Helen. It's an interesting idea for a book, and the idea itself deserves the four and five stars, but other than that it falls short.
I don't like Helen, and as much as she is actually a victim in her story, I couldn't really root for her. Normally unlikeable characters are my thing, but her treatment of Ellie from childhood just couldn't make me like her. It's evident to me that a lot of Ellie's troubles are actually from Helen's treatment of her. Helen constantly belittles her, makes fun of her, and bullies her alongside her friends. Why wouldn't Ellie want to be Helen? Helen's the golden child, the one who follows all the rules, the one who their (admittedly off-kilter) mother loves.
None of this was what prompted my below average review however.
Reading this book made me annoyed, then frustrated, then angry. How half of this made it through the editing process I have no idea, and I can't find many other reviews that mention it. Beside Myself is written in chapters that alternate between the present and the past. Except that the present chapters are written in third-person past tense, and the past chapters are written in first-person present tense. It doesn't make sense story-telling wise.
Then, halfway through the book, for no explicable reason, the past chapters switch to second-person present tense (from "I do this" to "You do this"). Needless to say, I was ripped out from my little reading cloud asking "Wait, what?" After some thought I could come up with a reason this might be done, namely to do with Helen's disconnect with her own identity, but if that's what it is it is never explained. I couldn't get past it.
The second thing that bothered me a little that other reviews touched on, was the multiple things characters are referred to. While the main story doesn't have a large cast of characters, each one is often referred to by multiple names. I didn't have trouble in following this, but other reviewers have apparently. Examples include: Helen referred to as Helen, Ellie, and Smudge. Ellie referred to as Ellie, Helen, Hellie (Hellie is a good identifier as it is the Helen version of Ellie), and their step-father being called Horace and Arkela.
Onto the third (it wasn't until writing this review I realised how many problems I had with this book). As in my preface, the term "literary" here is used for descriptive. Evidently the author has never been told that you can have too much description. I actually quite like prose writing and descriptive writing myself, but the problem with Beside Myself is the needless description of everything in every moment, and the repetitiveness of this description. This description is actually problematic in one instance:
"There was a tray in front of her and a pair of chocolate-coloured hands manouvering it into position ... "There," said the nurse in a sing-song Nigerian accent"
There are problems with describing a person of colour as being "chocolate", not to mention the fact that it's an incredibly overused identifier, but Morgan then goes on to explicitly state that she was Nigerian. Most people, I would think, would be aware that Nigerians are PoC.
My fourth and final issue with the book is similar, it is the repetitiveness of some descriptions. Nearly every scene that refers to some kind of sex act is described as "(someone) moving above (her, me, you)". There are probably a million ways to describe this, and while this works as a way to tell readers what is happening, it's dull and repetitive by the second or third time.
Now, some more good words about this book.
While it isn't exactly a thriller it is actually an interesting look into some great themes including Identity, mental illness, suicide, and family. If that is something you are interested in it's probably worth giving this book a shot, despite my less than stellar review. Although I don't think Helen/Smudge's illness is explicitly stated it is clear that she suffers from manic and depressive episodes as well as hallucinations and self-identity problems, and Beside Myself provides an interesting insight into the mental goings on of a character who suffers from this. I would be interested to see the opinions and reviews of someone who may be able to relate to the Helen/Smudge character.
It is important to note though this book should carry some warnings, it does include scenes/mention of: mental illness, suicide, and rape.