Morgan’s beautifully written domestic drama Beside Myself unfolds from the point of view of Ellie/Smudge, who used to be Helen until her father’s “Unfortunate Decision”
and a childhood prank--swapping identities with her twin sister--destroyed any sort of happy life that Smudge might have had. Happiness can only be set right by the truth. But who exactly knows the whole truth? Certainly Ellie’s sister knows, but she refuses to tell their mother that the swap was all just a game. At first Helen pleads for Ellie to stop. She hopes that eventually her real “Helenness” will shine through and that Mother will have no choice but to know that it is her: “It‘s just Ellie, you know how she’s always making things up and saying she isn’t her.”
At its heart, Morgan’s novel is about the most basic of human relations: a daughter desperate to make herself known, first to her family and then to her schoolmates, who reject her because she is strange and often violent. While her sister flourishes in the arms of family and friends, eventually becoming a popular television personality, Ellie turns away, the sureties of her life crumbling around her. Smudge, meanwhile, sits alone in her Walworth flat, dependent on government assistance, plagued by voices that snicker and torment her in her head. She’s trying desperately to keep her footing on a groundwork of shifting facts as an unstable and treacherous past somehow connects her to the present.
Then Smudge gets a call from her mother about Helen. Something has happened--there’s been an accident, and Helen is in a coma. Her stepfather, Horace, is beside himself and her brother, Richard, is on compassionate leave. With darkness nearly upon her and “stifling, choking stars prickling to the edge of her vision,” anxiety bursts in on her. For the first time, Smudge sees the version staring up at her from the front page of the newspaper: the hotshot Helen Sallis and the deadly car crash that almost claimed her life. With Helen’s husband, Nick, a perpetual dark shape behind her frosted glass front door, Smudge begins to realize that perhaps there’s been a purpose to all of her suffering. It’s been a month now, and there’s still no change. Nothing seems to make any difference. Nick pleads with Ellie that perhaps she could come and talk to her sister. Yet Smudge has convinced herself that they all hate her: Mother, Horace and Helen: “they all hate me for what I did. For what they think.” And Smudge can hardly confide in her deep dark secret of the game, the monster man carrying boxes and the smell of eaten Feast Lolly, as well as
the look in Mother’s eyes when Helen/Ellie begs and pleads and the world tips and sways “like the magic carpet ride.”
Ellie’s childhood--the slow rumbling of teenage violence and its cycle of abuse and punishment--is woven into her later life as she desperately tries to remake herself as a graphic artist in Manchester and later in Amsterdam. But Smudge can never quite escape “the sharp, jagged thing” inside herself. She remembers the excitement that first came from still being stuck as Ellie. At first she hoped the mistake was going to be discovered and that finally the teachers would clap a big hand on Ellie’s shoulder: “I remember the lane and the game and tricking Chloe. Where it all went wrong and turned into an awful nightmare.” Soon, however, all the fun is turning into anger and into a lifetime of wanting to hurt her sister and her mother, all the people she should have been able to trust.
Morgan unfolds a startling account of a damaged woman. The writing is atmospheric and bleak, fully reflecting the dysfunction that looms over every aspect of this story. This is not an uplifting read, but it
is certainly suspenseful and exquisitely structured. Like the monster in Mary Shelly’s
Frankenstein, Smudge is in such a paralyzing state of denial, so broken and so vulnerable that she is
in danger of coming completely undone. From the social services, who attempt to stop her benefit, to the police and the bailiffs who come to evict her for not paying her rent, the world seems to be constantly drawing Smudge/Ellie back to the chaos and darkness once again.
For all its hopelessness, Morgan's novel is surprisingly sensitive in exposing Smudge’s vulnerabilities. Even the drama attached to her struggles--a suddenly empty bank account, no job, a filthy apartment, and a mother who refuses to acknowledge her or the swap--are subtly calibrated to allow us to feel and sympathize for her. As emotions blur and crash, wash in and out, the Doppelgangers are finally brought face to face with devastating results. For all that Smudge has done, and for all the hurt she
has endured, we don't want her to break as she gradually brings herself to this moment in time in a new attempt to shape and refine her being.