Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land is a dark, compelling, voice-driven debut psychological suspense thriller.
Everywhere you look, it seems there’s a new psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator written by a female author taking the world by storm. Who’s going to be the next Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins or Ruth Ware? Ali Land, that’s who. The trope might be getting tired at this point, but not in the capable hands of Land, whose phenomenal debut novel, Good Me Bad Me, relies on her background as a child and adolescent mental health nurse to very good effect.
The story is narrated by 15-year-old Milly, once known as Annie, who's the daughter of a serial killer. The narration itself is a blend of stream of consciousness that seems to come from directly inside Milly’s brain and a more traditional recounting of events with dialogue tags to orient us in the conversations. It can be confusing to read this style at first, but the unbalanced nature of this narration adds so much to the plot.
Milly has already turned her mother in for the murder of nine young children when the novel starts, and the story of how Milly got to that point unfolds piece by piece as she begins to deal with everyday life after the horrors she’s endured. Part of that everyday life is learning to fit in with her foster family, learning to fit in at school when her foster-sister Phoebe bullies her hard, and figuring out how to cope with trauma inflicted on her by her own mother while also being the key witness in her mother’s murder trial. It’s a lot for a fifteen-year-old to handle. Much of Milly’s internal dialogue is addressed to her mother and shows how she’s working through all of these issues.
Mike checks us in and we’re shown to our rooms, a family suite, separate bedrooms with an adjoining door. When we go down for lunch I’m struck by how many children there are. Crawling; running; crying; spilling. Everywhere. But it’s not just children, you’re here too. Your face, on the front of a newspaper, the headline “One Week to Go.” A man at a table by the window, he holds you. Reads you. Folds you. Places you in the inside pocket of the coat handed to him by one of the waitresses. He stands up and puts it on. How close your face lies to his heart. But truth be told, you love in a different way from most. Your love isn’t so gentle and kind to be a kiss from your lips to a person’s heart. It isn’t like that at all.
Her feelings are often conflicted as she puts on a brave face for everyone around her. She loves and misses her mother in spite of the abuse. But it’s not all that uncommon for the abused to love their abuser and hate themselves.
Not everyone knows why Milly is in foster care. Her name has been changed for her own protection and to give her some privacy and a chance at a normal life. But Milly’s greatest struggle is figuring out if she can be good or if—as the product of a serial killer—she has no choice but to be bad. She spends much of the novel ruminating on this. We’re left with scant few clues about her actual behavior, but what we do see will make you wonder what side she’ll choose. Or if she has a choice at all.
Reader, I was enthralled. Land sets a steady pace for the action in this novel, and Milly’s inner dialogue as well as her relationships with the people around her give a sense of foreboding without really giving too much away. We might guess, and we might even be right, but that doesn’t diminish the thrill of uncovering Milly and her mother’s secrets as the plot moves forward. It’s like seeing a thundercloud in the distance, expecting a little rain, and getting a monsoon instead.
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Ardi Alspach was born in Florida, raised in South Carolina, and now resides in New York City with her cat and an apartment full of books. By day, she's a publicist, and by night, she's a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @ardyceelaine or check out her website at ardyceelaine.wordpress.com.