I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
With an author like M.R. Carey, who made himself known with such outstanding works like The Girl with All the Gifts and The Boy on the Bridge, there is no question that the announcement of a new book of his would catch my attention, and my curiosity: Someone Like Me deals with a totally different genre compared to the two previous books I read, but still it offers a compelling, impossible-to-put-down experience.
Reviewing Someone Like Me proved to be something of a reviewing challenge, however, because I found myself walking the thin edge between description and spoiler and trying to avoid the latter as much as I could, since there are some revelations, in the course of the book, that should be met on their own, so this post might sound a little vague, for which I apologize in advance.
The story revolves around two main characters, quite different from each other: Liz Kendall is a single mother, who is trying to raise her two kids – child Molly and teenager Zac – while facing the aftermath of the divorce from her husband Marc, a violent man prone to domestic abuse. Returning the children to their mother after a court-sanctioned weekend with them, Marc enters into an argument with Liz and blinded by rage tries to throttle her: in the past Liz never reacted to Marc’s violence, partly because she did not have the strength of character to resist and partly because she thought that offering herself as a target she would turn Marc’s rage away from the kids. This time, however, something seems to take control of Liz’s willpower: grabbing a broken bottle from the kitchen’s floor, she hits her former husband’s face, shocking him so much that he breaks the assault for a long enough time to allow the neighbors to intervene and call the police. The authorities’ involvement shines a spotlight on Marc’s past and present behavior, and Liz is able to obtain a restraining order and to start the process of removing the ex-husband’s poisonous presence from their lives, but the incident also seems to have woken up something that Liz did not even know she harbored…
Fran Watts is a sixteen-year old girl burdened by a dramatic past: ten years before she was abducted by a very disturbed man who thought she was a monster and kept her captive for a couple of terrible days before the police found her and arrested the man. Since then Fran has tried to deal with the nightmares from that experience, but there seems to be no amount of medication or psychological counseling that can help her completely: there are times when the reality around the girl seems to shift in small but still frightening details – a bedcover changing color, a differently shaped armchair or a different image in the pictures hanging on the wall. These alterations of the surrounding reality make Fran somewhat skittish, and therefore a loner since she has been dubbed as ‘weird’ at school and she can only rely on the support of her widowed father and the friendlier of her hallucinations, the fox Jinx, a character from a cartoon series Fran loved as a child, the only one of the unreal elements plaguing her mind that the young girl feels comfortable with.
These two apparently unrelated individuals do indeed share a certain element of commonality, and here comes the tricky part of the review, because talking about it would be a huge disservice to the readers of this gripping book: what I can safely share is that it’s an interesting take on a well-known theme, and one that kept me turning the pages in a compulsive way until the end. Since I need to steer away from that avenue of discussion, I can only concentrate on the characters – and as I’ve come to expect from M.R. Carey’s work, they are both interesting and realistically drawn.
Liz, despite having endured Marc’s abuse, is not what you could expect from a victim: she does suffer from many insecurities, granted, and she knows she was not strong enough to defy her husband’s progressively worsening attitude, but she found her strength and courage through her children and the need to protect them from the physical and psychological abuse that the man might have visited on them. We see through her recollections how she used to be a different person, one with a strong spirit and some dreams (like her love for performing music with her band) that were slowly subsumed, as it often happens in these cases, by her acquiescence to Marc’s desires first and to his violence later. Yet she does not see herself as a victim, does not act like one, because all her drives have been channeled into making Molly and Zac two strong, self-reliant kids, so that her success in that respect is what gives her the motivation to remake herself into a different person and what makes her a very relatable – if not completely positive – character.
Fran stands somewhat at Liz’s opposite end of the spectrum: even though the repercussions of the kidnapping have left unhealed scars on her soul, she has learned to draw strength from that past and the knowledge that she survived it, despite the nightmares that still afflict her. She is very independent and more mature than her age would entail, one of the sides of her character I most admired being her constant strife to avoid burdening her father with her troubles: the relationship between the two of them is indeed one of the highlights of this novel, one based on affectionate jokes that hide the deeper concerns each of them harbors for the other.
The main concepts around which the novel revolves are those of identity and of the road not taken, of the way life’s experiences shape people’s characters and inform their psychological makeup – in a way the subject of parallel universes is touched on, but in a different, novel way that gives this story an added level of intensity. This is the best I can do without spoiling the overall arc of Someone Like Me, and I can only add that it’s a story that builds up at a relentless pace and keeps you glued to the pages with no chance of coming up for air. And if the final resolution seems to come a little too easily, or the inevitable fallout looks a bit on the light side – at least in comparison with the highly dramatic events piling up over the course of the story – I can still call myself satisfied with the overall result.
In my opinion, this book manages to surpass M.R. Carey’s previous novels in narrative strength and characterization, and considering how strong those earlier stories were, you can get an idea of how compelling this one is.