Some parents live vicariously through their children. They are enlivened by their accomplishments. They are invigorated by their potential.
With some families, the children are encouraged to carry on the familial occupation passed down one generation to the next. Doctor. Lawyer. Teacher, perhaps. Police officer. Nurse.
That’s what Annie’s mother was. A nurse.
Annie knows a lot for a fifteen-year-old girl. Some stuff she picked up from her mother (like all children she was a sponge, soaking it all up) other things she learned from experience. Things like how to position an arm so that a broken collar bone won’t hurt so bad, how to slow bleeding and calm an upset stomach. She knows how to relieve the symptoms of shock and how to soothe a terrified child.
While Annie feels more secure in her new foster home, (she has a new name too, it’s Milly) these things–these skills–still come in handy from time to time even though her foster father, Mike, is really nice. He’s a psychologist. Her psychologist, in fact.
Her foster mother, Saskia, is okay too, but she’s not the most stable person. She has a drug and drinking problem.
And then there’s Phoebe, the couples daughter. She has it in for Ann…Milly. And she’s got a mean streak about three miles long. Still, Milly can’t help admiring her. Phoebe is as beautiful as she is cruel. She’s also conniving and calculating. She reminds Milly a lot of her mother. The nurse. The serial killer of children. The Peter Pan Killer.
In Good Me Bad Me, author–and former psychological nurse–Ali Land wades into the murky waters of the nurture vs nature debate. Consequently Land is from Great Britain and her book is set in a posh neighborhood in the outskirts of London where, currently, the debate, due to it’s linkage to immigration, rages (as it does in the United States also.) With her debut novel, she narrows the scope of the argument to the family unit.
Land draws us into Milly’s world, gently. She doesn’t belabor gruesome details. She titillates us instead. Expertly. She knows her subject.
In an interview with the Huffington Post Land reveals the inspiration for the character Milly was one of her patients who was “trapped in a devastating and escalating pattern of self harm.” Land goes further in the interview, disclosing the reason her patient hated herself to the point of trying to take her own life: she feared she was too much like her mother who had been involved in horrific acts of child abuse.
Though Milly’s mother has subjected her daughter to terrible emotional, physical and sexual abuse, she never tolerated an “outsider” tormenting her child, with out her approval. Now Milly must contend with a jealous and resentful Phoebe and her private school sycophants alone. But, of course, Milly is never really alone. Her mother’s influence, her imprint, is always there advising and accessing the situation.
Still, for the most part, Milly is able to fight her malignant impulses and resist being aroused by them. The question is: how long can she continue to do so?
In recent years there has been an influx of psychological thrillers. At first I was happy to over indulge in my favorite sub genre. Now it seems that every thriller that comes down the pike is of the psychological bent and I have become weary with the slow burn teasing and toying; the very staples of the psychological thriller formula. The will she or won’t she?
Yes, of course, we know she will…Okay then when will she do it? Well…At the end of the book, naturally…
And then there’s this, the most important harbinger…How will she do it? Very smartly. Intricately. With a rueful twist of fate perhaps.
The climax rarely lives up to all the foreshadowing. It seems the formula would, more often than not, be better suited with a short story or novella. Good Me Bad Me is no exception to this trend. Yes, it is well written. Yes, the dialogue is fine; the characters are believable. It’s just that everyone of consequence is predictably damaged.
This is what I have come to expect from a psychological thriller. All the boxes are checked.
What differentiates Good Me Bad Me from just about every other psychological thriller since The Girl On the Train is the acumen of the author. Her real life experience, her expertise on the subject matters of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of psychopathy and it’s variants ring painfully true. This is the ingredient that elevates her material and enables her to create such a vivid protagonist.
Take for instance the passage where Milly learns that Mike–her psychologist and foster father–is writing a book about her. Though she is relatively upset by this development, she accepts it as an exchange for her having a safe place to lay her head.
For me, that was the most unsettling, most heart breaking thing in all its three hundred or so pages. Though it was just one of a continuum of events that from Milly’s perspective could be considered a betrayal, I couldn’t help but wonder about the teenage girl that the character was based on. What happened to her? Is she all right?
And what does she think of her ex-therapist’s book?