Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land is fantastic. It is thrilling, the characters are alive, and I was enthralled until the last page. I do not recommend this book for everybody, however. There are some truly disturbing images and sequences that could act as triggers for survivors.
This is the story of a 15-year-old girl, Milly, whose mother is a serial child murderer. She has been raised in a life of abuse and has been forced to assist her mother in her crimes. The story picks up after Milly has turned her mother in to the police and her mother has been arrested. In the first person, Milly tells the story of her adjustment to a foster home in London in the weeks before her mother’s trial where Milly will be expected to testify in court.
As part of her adjustment to a more normal life, Milly attends an all-girls school. At school, she is harassed and bullied by her foster sister and other girls, a conflict that is intimately bound up with the plot. If that seems rather vague, it’s because revealing too much of that story thread will reveal too much of the overall story.
Go read the book to see what I mean. It’ll be worth it.
Two major themes run through Good Me, Bad Me. First, Milly feels an incredible amount of survivor’s guilt for her participation in her mother’s crimes. She is as much a victim as the children her mother kills, but she feels she could have acted sooner to help. Milly’s guilt pervades the entire novel.
The second theme that threads through the story is the contest of nature versus nurture. Milly is afraid that she is the same as her mother and will become a killer. She wants to reject how she has been raised while at the same time she is afraid that people will assume her nature is to be a serial killer if they know about her past.
Land structures the story very similar to a personal letter from Milly to her mother. The language is intimate, with the flow reflecting deep emotional wounds and betrayal.
One of the delightful aspects of the story is Land’s inclusion of Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, as a school play that Milly is part of. Many of the themes found in Golding’s classic story are reflected in Milly’s story, giving it extra depth and tenor. There’s the contrast of the individual to groupthink as well as the question of how civilized people really are are their core.
I was also reminded of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. While Milly doesn’t revel in her personal issues the same way Holden Caulfield does, she nonetheless is an outsider looking in at “normal,” but finding it dysfunctional and anything but normal. While she wants to become part of a family, she also is painfully aware of her alienation, in this case because of her background.
In my Instagram post sharing I had received my copy of the ARC, I said “hints of Hemingway.” Ali Land’s writing at times is very sparse, with sentence fragments and intentionally broken narrative flow. The effect is of someone trying to speak about a terrible memory or secret, but being not quite articulate. The truth, teased out by Land’s stripped-down narrative, is stark and cold and unfriendly, as it often is when deceptions are revealed.
Good Me Bad Me is an outstanding book. Go forth and read it.