In M.R. Carey’s latest thriller, Someone Like Me, we first meet sweet, docile single mother Liz, as she tries to assert herself yet again to her aggressive ex-husband. After years of enduring an abusive marriage, Liz was finally able to divorce her husband and keep her children safe from what she feared would be potential danger to them, too. But the shared custody of the two children still causes much friction, with Liz’s ex Marc often pushing boundaries.
(Warning: the novel [and review] include scenes of domestic violence.)
On one such night, when he brings the children home much too late and Liz complains, he lashes out at her physically once again, with more aggression than before. But this time, unlike all the other incidences Liz had submissively borne, she feels something within herself break free, something stronger and more violent, and she is able to defend herself against Marc with equal brutality, slashing his face with a broken glass bottle as he chokes her. Liz herself is shocked, and worried as to what has come over her but grateful to be alive after the altercation.
Later, upon seeing a psychologist to discuss what happened to her in that moment, she is told it was probably a ‘dissociative episode’ brought on by trauma and fear. Liz tries to make sense of the single angry voice in her head that seems to be getting louder, and louder, and finds that she isn’t alone, and doesn’t seem to be imagining things. Eventually she gives in to Beth, the voice in her head, and it feels like something ‘rose as she fell. Spread itself like wings through her and above her and around her. A funnelled force like a gale hit her full on, snatched her up and hurled her headfirst into a blistering, unbearable cold.’
Meanwhile, not too far from where Liz lies dreaming of the voice in her head, 16 year old Fran is dealing with the deep psychological scars of having been abducted at age six by a highly disturbed young man who insisted she was some sort of demon. Though physically unharmed after the kidnapping, Fran has never managed to fully process and move on from her childhood trauma, and continues to have nightmares, memory loss and hallucinations. Most interestingly, she is in the constant company of a magical fox called Lady Jinx, who is her best friend, protector and not at all real.
Fran understands Jinx to be her an imaginary friend created by her subconscious soon after her abduction made her a well known but incredibly lonely and often teased child. Something shifted in Fran the day she was stolen away to a hotel room and held for hours: she has strange layered memories of the day—all horrific—but Jinx is the one positive remnant of the incident. But there are things about Jinx that don’t quite add up to this theory, and while Jinx is determined to keep Fran away from the trauma, grief and sadness of her past, Fran is equally determined to figure out why she isn’t able to make progress with her mental health, even after a decade of professional help and medications, both.
Connecting Fran and Liz is Zak, Liz’s 16 year old son and Fran’s classmate. He is the one who introduces the two women, unknowingly setting off a sequence of events that will change all their lives. Fran, upon meeting Liz, is able to see something strange in the older woman, a blurring of sorts, as if there are two of her within one space. Fran doesn’t understand what she is seeing, and though she has no idea that Liz has just had her first ‘dissociative episode’, she has seen enough in Liz to know when something changes in the older woman a few weeks later. It is enough to make Fran wonder further about her own ‘hallucinations’ and what really happened to her during her abduction that has caused this shift in her vision, and if it is at all connected to what is happening to Liz.
Liz and Beth. Fran and Jinx. Liz and Fran. Beth and Jinx.
All four are unique identities, all four share traumas and overlapping lives through time and space—or do they? Are they each simply an aspect of the others’ own personality, subconscious? One an id to the other’s ego? Carey is good at making his readers question this, with plenty of well timed reveals adding to the constant tension in this twisty yet controlled narrative. The perspective shifts between Liz and Fran, until Beth comes into the mix and we hear from her, too. Carey does a great job at creating empathetic characters who are not necessarily likeable—Beth, in particular, is straight up unsavoury. And yet, it is easy to feel her pain just as much as it is Liz’s, who is, quite simply, a nice woman It’s a small cast of clear, true voices at play in Someone Like Me, and Carey is just as skilful at creating a deeply satisfying narrative that comes full circle here as he was with brilliantly plotted The Girl With All The Gifts.
But this isn’t just a thriller—it’s also a sensitive and smart commentary on domestic abuse and it’s traumatic aftermath, not just on the victim herself but on the family as a whole; on childhood trauma, compartmentalisation, defence and coping mechanisms. It’s an exploration of how love can drive us to do strengths we’d never expect, but so can hate and fear. It’s about the demons that exist within us, and the angels too, and how it’s never quite certain which aspects of our secret selves are supporting us or harming us. Sure, it’s also about metaphysical slipstreams in time and space—or are those just slipstreams between our conscious and subconscious minds? Carey is clever, and so he leaves the answers to his readers.
Someone Like Me is available from Orbit.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.