Good Me Bad Me
Ali Land
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Buy *Good Me Bad Me* by Ali Landonline

Good Me Bad Me
Ali Land
Flatiron Books
304 pages
September 2017
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Something has to give in Ali Land’s novel. The narrative lurches back and forth in a scattered stream-of-consciousness style as Milly gives us impressionistic snatches of her movements. Staying with her foster family--psychologist Michael, his wife, Saskia, and their teenage daughter, Phoebe--Milly narrates in a fervent babble with halting urgency. As she awaits the trial of her mother, who is charged with murdering nine children, Mike’s therapy sessions are an opportunity for Milly to discuss her concerns and worries. Ensconced in the relative safety of his Notting Hill home, Milly knows that Mike is the only chance she has to break free as she prepares to go to court.

Phoebe and her best friend, Izzy are Milly's nemeses. The girls take an instant dislike to Milly, whom they view as an interloper and unwelcome intruder. As she tries to ignore the nerves she feels about Phoebe, who views her as the newest in a long list of foster kids, Milly vows to find a way to make it better while an invisible hand reaches into the pit of her stomach. Milly misses her mother even though she knows the woman is a monster: “I remember the hours spent in the secure unit where they tried to prepare me for life after you.” There’s a game being played, a secret that mother and daughter share.

Land shapes her tale around Milly’s fears and paranoia and the ever-present voice of her mother which fills Milly’s head, making her feel secure and loved--just like her mother made the parents feel when they trusted her with their children. Mike’s study is a place of stability and safety. He wants to expose Milly’s secrets, but he also wants to make sure she eases herself into exclusive Wetherbridge School. Milly finds a friend in kindly Miss Kemp, who encourages Milly with her artwork, a series of delicate charcoal drawings. But Phoebe will be Milly’s undoing. Milly revisits her vortex of memories: the lavender-smelling house, the night of her mother’s arrest, the voices of the children, tiny ghosts who bleed out of the wall.

Nouns are twisted into verbs and everything that was once fresh rots. Milly, Phoebe, Mike, and Saskia dance around each other. As Phoebe ratchets up her campaign, Milly--quietly and methodically becomes “a hidden puppet master, pulling the strings.” Land’s characters leave what’s inside them (mostly anger and dysfunction: Saskia’s coke habit, Phoebe’s fury, and Mike’s academic distractions  as he writes a book based on Milly) to the abandoned manifestations of a soured love. For months, Milly hasn’t allowed herself to think of that tragic, fateful night: “That if I’d gone to the police sooner, Daniel, the last boy you took, would still be alive.”

June, Milly’s case worker, knows how difficult and painful it was for Milly to give a statement against her mother. She counsels Milly that, since she is the key witness in the trial, the defense will look to find ways to undermine her statement to try and create reasonable doubt around certain events. A feeling of tension soaks the days leading up the court hearing. When Milly befriends Morgan, a wayward girl from the council estates, she finally thinks she’s found someone to share her past. Land captures Milly’s angst as she tries to let it all go and push the questions of her mother’s guilt out of her mind. No matter how hard Milly’s works to forget, the memories are still there, as vivid and bright as freshly drawn blood.

There’s a blurring of voices and perceptions, a constant push and pull between Milly and the voice of her mother. Part fairy tale, part psychodrama, the book’s irresistible momentum and fevered intensity are heightened by the short, sharp obsessive repetition of words. Land highlights the confusion a child feels when violence is mixed with tenderness and hyper-vigilance, never knowing what to expect but “knowing to expect everything.” Because of this, the reader is placed deep within Milly’s fog of thoughts. Phoebe is portrayed as a teenage temptress who knows all the right buttons to push; Saskia acts much like a teenager herself, out her depth in a house of real teenage girls. Mike, so diligent in dispensing Milly’s medication, is not so assiduous at making sure she takes them. Milly was given her new identity so she could feel protected and invisible and draw on sympathy; she soon realizes this is an important tool in her armor of camouflage.

Phoebe eventually goes too far, threatening to use social media to expose the “freak” Milly. Much of Milly’s backstory is cleverly withheld: there are hints at her instability, but we bring our own assumptions to her character. Similar in theme to Golding’s Lord of the Flies--a devastating, haunting book that rips back the veneer of civilization to reveal our primal nature (Milly and Phoebe are actually part of the Wetherbridge school production of the novel)--Good Me Bad Me builds a steady and icy unease that crescendos into a jaw-dropping “I told you so” finale.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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