Book Review: How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

Bella Mackie's How to Kill Your Family is a darkly humorous and subversive debut novel about class, family, love... and murder. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Grace Bernard has known for a long time that her father abandoned her mother and herself to eke out a hardscrabble London living on their own. But she’s a teenager when she realizes exactly the breadth of his neglect, and how callously his wealthy family has consigned her to the ash heap. After her mother dies of cancer when she’s thirteen, she begins to concoct a plan that will earn her not only vengeance but the inheritance she deserves.

In order to attain her goal, she’ll have to kill seven members of the extended Artemis family, beginning with the grandparents who were probably the cruelest of them all. Grace is nothing if not practical, and decides that the best way to off her family and get away with it is to make their deaths seem like a series of accidents:

I want these killings done—done well, yes, but I’m not an enthusiastic fan of homicide, researching the most fascinating and gruesome ways to kill. There’s a certain art to a good murder. I will admit to being impressed by the lengths that some people will go to, but I don’t want to get caught up in more and more extreme plans which eventually result in me hanging off a zip line through central London, decapitating someone with a samurai sword just for theatrics.

As Grace studies, stalks and slays her victims—some definitely more deserving than others—she muses on the life she’s led so far, commenting in a snarky, freeform manner on all the issues of her age, both great and small. The reason for her rambling quickly becomes clear: She’s been imprisoned in Limehouse and is amusing herself by writing a memoir of sorts, her main escape from her incredibly nosey cellmate. Ironically, she’s been convicted of a murder she is absolutely innocent of, throwing a major wrench into her actual homicidal plans. Will she be able to regain her freedom so that she can continue with her murderous spree? Or will yet more complications arise to derail her ambitions for good?

This is a brutally honest portrayal of a young woman nursing a lot of rage in her heart and directing her anger, sometimes justified, sometimes less so, at every irritating thing that crosses her path. From the entitlement of the rich to the smugness of the middle class to the squalor of the poor, no one is safe from her acerbic observations, not even the relatively wealthy woman who takes her in as a teenager and attempts to instill feminist virtues in her new ward:

Did she think that I had no understanding of the way the world treated women? I understood how the system was stacked against women long before I ever knew the words to describe how we are marginalized, discarded, belittled. I saw it chip away at my mother day by day. Brought up by strict parents who had rigid views about how girls should behave (who spurned her when she decided to live her life a certain way), prized for her looks until one day she wasn’t, used by a man for fun until he got bored. Working hard in a series of low-paid jobs where she was never appreciated. Raising a child alone without it counting for a thing.

Grace is often a sympathetic heroine, even as she behaves badly in pursuit of her goals. Though she can be easy to dislike, it’s difficult to go through the entire book and not want her to ultimately achieve her ends, if only because we’ve been exposed to her psyche at its most vulnerable and ugly. Thus the big twist at the end felt oddly off from the seemingly feminist aims of the rest of the novel. Perhaps Bella Mackie meant for readers to feel infuriated by the ways class and patriarchy unceasingly profit off of the efforts of scrappy young women to make better lives for themselves. While perhaps true to life, it feels like an odd stopping point in Grace’s tale, as readers by that point will well know she’s still got a lot of righteous murder left in her to explore.

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