Book Review: Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey

“Those new to M. R. Carey’s work will become immediate fans; for everyone else, Someone Like Me cements his position as one of the best genre writers around today.”

 

M.R. Carey is a name that should be familiar to most readers of horror. He appeared to explode onto the scene in 2014 with his runaway bestseller The Girl with All the Gifts, a novel that breathed new life into the zombie apocalypse tale. He subsequently wrote the screenplay for the very successful film adaptation. Prior to this, though, Carey has, under the name Mike Carey, written extensively for both Marvel and DC Comics and released a series of occult detective stories featuring the exorcist, Felix Castor. Following the success of The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey penned the stand-alone thriller Fellside (2016) and a sequel to The Girl… called The Boy on the Bridge (2017). He now returns with his latest stand-alone thriller, Someone Like Me, the subject of this review.

The book follows two main characters, whose story strands initially seem separate but then converge in unexpected and narratively exciting ways. The first is Liz Kendall, mother of a teenage son, Zac, and a six-year-old daughter, Molly. Liz shares custody of the two children with her ex-husband Marc, an emotionally manipulative and abusive man. The book opens with Liz at the mercy of one of Marc’s rages, as he physically assaults her for a supposed slight. It would do the scene and the subject matter a disservice to say we are ‘dropped right in the thick of the action’, because it’s such a harrowing and powerful opener. Carey has clearly done his research here, and presents the violence in spare, clear prose that leaves us in no doubt how vile and heinous such behaviour is. Only a sociopath would feel anything other than horror, anger, and deep sympathy at Liz’s plight. But, of course, there is still a story to be told. In the midst of the attack—when Marc is strangling Liz and she is convinced she is about to die—something seems to take over, using her in unexpected defence. Liz views all this at a remove, a passive witness to some other force fighting back and injuring Marc. Though shocked, Liz doesn’t initially examine this incident, instead feeling only gratitude she is still alive. It gives her the impetus—with support from her two upstairs neighbours and a helpful police officer—to pursue charges. But this won’t be the last time she feels this “other” take over.

The second main character is Fran Watts, a teenage girl who has suffered some unknown to the reader, at least in the initial chapters, past trauma. It lingers in her mind as a severe form of PTSD, where the world around her becomes malleable. Objects and surroundings might change at any given moment, from the familiar to the alien, altering colour, shape, or even location. In addition, she has the most unique imaginary friend; a cartoon fox called Lady Jinx, from her favourite childhood show, Knights of the Woodland Table. Lady Jinx is her companion, her confidant, her would-be protector even though she is intangible and only Fran can see her. Fran deals with life as best she can, though she has no real friends and only her caring father, Gil, to help her. And Doctor Southern, her therapist. It is while sitting in the waiting room to see him, that Fran first ‘meets’ Liz. She recognizes Zac (there to support his mother as she seeks answers to why she seems to have a more aggressive personality within) who attends the same high-school. Moreover, though, she sees in Liz a duality, a dark shadow occupying the same space as the woman. She puts this down to her particular hallucinations.

Make no mistake, this book is—despite the marketing—absolutely in the realm of the supernatural, the other-worldly. Though the first couple of chapters suggest ambiguity, when Fran sees Liz and sees the “other” within her, it objectively confirms the speculative in some fashion. What Carey has done here is to craft a fantastic, engaging story that manages to combine or straddle multiple genres and themes without feeling forced or awkward. He writes with clarity and immediacy, his prose sharp and clean. Yet he also manages to effortlessly showcase “show and tell” as only a writer confident and sure in their craft can do. The nature of the story means it’s necessary to dive into the internal landscapes of both Liz and Fran, and to offer numerous passages of exposition. Carey weaves these “info-dumps” into the story with ease, melding them naturally with the unfolding scenes. At no point is the reader overwhelmed or bored; if anything, the backstory serves to raise the stakes and push the reader on. It’s the type of book that clichéd accolades such as “unputdownable” or “a real page-turner” were invented for, but they’re no less true for that. It is also a very human work. Not only dealing sensitively with the subject of domestic abuse, we are also presented with a very sympathetic look at mental health/illness. In addition to all this, Carey breathes realistic life into his characters, good and bad and in-between, real and imagined alike. Liz is engaging and sympathetic, though not without her weaknesses, a tendency to capitulate and cower; understandable, considering the abuses she’s suffered. Yet there is also strength within her. Her alter-ego, on the other hand, is ruthless and confrontational, showing harsh, take-no-prisoner personality traits borne from similar experiences, but moulded in alternate ways. Fran is a survivor too, a victim of her own tragic past and present-day ostracism, yet she also has strength. Further, she hasn’t allowed her experiences to darken her world too much; she still enjoys her past-times, her hobbies, and she faces life with humour and hope as best she can.

Carey threads the varying strands of his story tighter and tighter as the narrative progresses towards its inevitable yet unforeseen conclusion. He drops hints and teasers, exciting the reader with suspected possibilities, yet also confounding expectation. To be able to introduce so many different concepts and still make them both plausible and harmonic shows true skill. To be able to do all this and still maintain the human aspect is nothing short of astonishing. Indeed, the book is filled with resonating, emotive scenes, both large and small. Someone Like Me is that rarest of works; a psychological thriller with speculative elements that should appeal to readers on either side of the genre “line”. It’s also one of those novels that—despite the often harrowing nature of its content—leaves the reader wishing there was more. Not because it’s lacking in any way, but because it’s such a rare thing to find a book that has it all; great characters, a thrilling plot, and an immersive, riveting story. Those new to M. R. Carey’s work will become immediate fans; for everyone else, Someone Like Me cements his position as one of the best genre writers around today.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Orbit
Hardback: 512 (pps)
Release Date: 8 November 2018

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