Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 352 pages; 2017.
A toxic relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter is at the heart of Good Me Bad Me, a peculiarly dark psychological suspense cum domestic drama by debut author Ali Land.
As the title suggests, the novel’s narrator treads a fine line between being good and being bad, and part of the fun of reading the book is deciding whether you trust her to tell the truth.
It’s a really fast-paced read, full of twists and turns and little shocks and “a-ha” moments, and perfect fodder if you are looking for something that’s a little bit different to the usual run-of-the-mill thrillers. I don’t wish to damn it with faint praise, but it feels like a sophisticated young adult novel (most of it is set in a secondary school and many of the characters are teenagers).
It’s not terribly believable (or authentic) on various different levels, but it does take you on a terrific ride.
Witness for the prosecution
Briefly, the story goes something like this. Annie’s mother has been doing bad things to young children, murdering them and then hiding the bodies in her house in rural Devon. Annie, who has had enough of her mother being a serial killer, goes to the police.
She turns witness for the prosecution and is given a new name — Milly Barnes — and is packed off to London to live with a foster family until her mother’s court case comes to trial.
But this new life isn’t easy. The only person who knows of her troubled past is her foster father, Mike, the psychologist who is helping her prepare for her time on the witness stand. While Mike and his wife, Saskia — a frail, fragile type with problems of her own — are kind and gentle with Milly, their teenage daughter Phoebe is so insecure and jealous that she takes an instant dislike to her new foster sister and begins bullying her at school.
The book basically charts Milly’s new life in this unconventional middle-class family as she tries to find her feet and prepare for the murder trial ahead. But between the merciless bullying at school, the need to keep her real identity secret and the pull of her jailed mother’s mental hold over her, it seems unlikely that Milly’s going to be given the fresh start she deserves.
Compelling and suspenseful tale
Is this book preposterous? Yes.
Is it full of truly unrealistic, incredulous elements (when, for instance, would a foster father ever be allowed to be his foster child’s approved therapist)? Yes.
Is it predictable? Yes.
But it’s also compelling, gripping and unputdownable, helped, I suspect, by the staccato rhythm of the short sentences and the author keeping back information so that you keep turning the pages in a bid to find out the next surprise. It’s brimful of suspense, and Milly’s voice — immediate, intimate and troubled — gives the story a bewitching edge.
Would I read it again? No.
Would I recommend it to someone looking for a palate cleanser after reading a steady diet of literary fiction? Yes.
Good Me Bad Me was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick last year, a Sunday Times bestseller and one of The Telegraph’s crime books of the year.