|Jan/Feb 2016 Reviews & Interviews|
Bloomsbury. 2015. 319 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 7030 3.
Helen and Ellie are identical twins. Even their mother does their hair differently so she can distinguish one from the other. Helen has plaits; Ellie has bunches. But Helen is more confident than Ellie and seems cleverer. Ellie, so the family story goes, was born with the cord round her neck, so she is slower. But when Helen decides they will swap identities for a day, exchanges their hairstyles and clothes, and coaches Ellie to imitate her own way of speaking and holding herself, it seems that Ellie is smarter than anyone suspected. And Ellie enjoys being Helen so much, she refuses to change back.
Helen is now seen by everyone as being Ellie. Even her mother, distracted and pre-occupied with a new partner, refuses to believe her when she tries to convince her otherwise. Helen's friends now become Ellie's friends and reject Helen as they once did Ellie. And everything Helen does to change this situation seems only to make matters worse. Her school-work deteriorates, and as she gets more and more frustrated and angry, so does her behavior and her mental state. Her life becomes nightmarish while Ellie's blossoms.
The Prologue of the book introduces us to Helen and Ellie as small, mischievous children on the day when the game of swapping identities begins. But already, there is an element of dark foreboding in the book. Escaping from their garden and running off to find a friend to play with, they meet their friend's unpleasant older brother. When he makes over-friendly overtures to them, Helen, not understanding what is going on but sensing something is not right, drags her sister away from the house. This older brother turns up, more threateningly, later in Helen's life.
From the very first chapter of the book, however, we know just how badly Helen's life has turned out. It is 25 years later, and she is "Smudge," living in squalor, fueled by cigarettes and alcohol, relying on benefits and hand-outs, supported at times by the Samaritans and plagued by voices in her head. When the phone rings, she thinks at first the noise is in her mind. But when it rings again, she picks it up. It turns out to be her estranged mother, phoning to tell her that her sister has been in an accident and is in a coma, and that she only rang to tell her before she read about it in the newspapers. Her sister, it seems, has become a well-know media personality. Smudge claims her mother has got a wrong number and puts the phone down.
From then on, alternating chapters chart the developments in Smudge's life as she is gradually drawn back into the family circle, and the step-by-step progress of earlier nightmares as Helen and Ellie (now Helen) grow from childhood into adulthood.
This is a dark but compelling story, and we see things first from a child's perspective, then from that of a disturbed teenager, and later from that of an adult suffering from bipolar disorder. Always, there is the tension of misunderstandings, truth and lies, acceptance and rejection, alternating mental clarity and confusion, unexpected successes and almost inevitable failure.
Ann Morgan makes Helen/Smudge a convincing character, and she manages the tensions in the book so skilfully that one's empathy with Helen's plight make you constantly hope for some seemingly impossible happy resolution. Her mother is a monster: tough, bitter and vindictive. Ellie remains a shadowy figure even before she is comatose. The family history gradually reveals something about the twins' father, and other characters are lightly sketched but important only as they affect Helen's emotions and her life. Suffice it to say there is no trite conclusion; there are surprises and shocks, and Helen's future is potentially brighter, but realistically, there are no guarantees.