As I look down at their beautiful faces I remember a story I read. A Native American tale where the Cherokee tells his grandson there’s a battle between two wolves in all of us. One is evil, the other good. The boy asks him, which wolf wins? The Cherokee tells him, the one you feed. (p. 56)
2017 seems to have brought with it a truckload of astonishingly assured and exciting debut novels. One of the most hyped of the bunch is Ali Land’s thriller, Good Me Bad Me, which I reckon just about lives up to its billing. It is a compulsive read, a true page-turner, even if it does stumble a little bit at the end.
Unlike other examples of the genre, much of Good Me Bad Me‘s horror and darkness lies right on the surface, rather than being buried beneath, a mystery to slowly unravel. This makes the novel more of a vivid and disturbing psychological portrait than a psychological thriller. But it is gripping and compulsive regardless.
The character we get this vivid and disturbing psychological portrait of is 15-year-old Milly Barnes. We know, more or less from the start, that Milly’s mother is a serial killer who abused her for years and is accused of murdering nine children. Milly is awaiting her mother’s trial, having finally reported her to the police. Despite this, and despite her awareness of her mother’s guilt and monstrousness, Milly’s bond with her mother remains:
… the person I want to run from is also the person I want to run to. (p. 45)
Land, with her sparse, direct, almost staccato prose, deftly explores this conflict. Moreover, by placing Milly with a foster family who aren’t exactly the Waltons, Land raises the question: who can truly help a child this damaged?
Milly is a compelling narrator and her voice rings very true. Too often novelists depicting teenagers and their patterns of speech get it badly wrong, but Land has a fine ear. Milly isn’t just damaged; she’s also intelligent, witheringly sarcastic, observant, funny and kind. And every so often … menacing, threatening and terrifying. What is interesting about this novel is that the threat and the tension come not from any external force but from Milly, from her internal conflict: which ‘wolf’ will she feed? Will society, circumstance and her surroundings give her a choice?
I was also fascinated by Land’s examination of the darkness in women. Not only do we have a female serial killer here, but the novel repeatedly highlights that females have the potential not just to be “Sugar and spice” but “all things” (p. 290).
Without giving too much away, I did find the ending of the novel disappointing. Land seems to take the obvious thriller route right at the close and I feel that something a bit more nuanced and ambiguous would have served the novel – and the multi-faceted Milly – far better.
That aside, Good Me Bad Me is a disturbing, real and unputdownable novel that heralds the emergence of a gifted new writer.