Richard and Judy Introduce Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Richard and Judy Introduce Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Richard and Judy Review Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

"When it comes to courtroom drama, this one is right up there with the best."

Richard Writes

Things are obviously better for Milly in her new environment – but not by much. Her foster father is a career-obsessed psychologist who wants to write a bestseller on Milly’s life as Annie; his wife is a drug-addled mess. Add to that their daughter, a deeply unpleasant bully who wants Milly out. Life certainly deals Milly lousy cards.

The family live in Notting Hill Gate and it is here that the teenager is coached on her role as star witness at her mother’s trial, on multiple charges of torturing and murdering nine children.

But Milly has been groomed all her life by her unspeakable mother and it’s gone deep into her psyche. Gradually, as the date for court draws nearer, we begin to realize how the experience of being brought up by a vicious psychopath has permanently influenced her own behaviour. Poor Milly is able to differentiate between right and wrong but is simply able to unshackle herself from her mother’s malign influence.

When it comes to courtroom drama, this one is right up there with the best. The tension is indescribable as Milly prepares to go into the witness box. She will be behind a screen while she gives evidence but her mother’s poisonous, powerful influence could penetrate a shield of solid lead.

There’s a good twist at the end, including this unsettling realization – as we turn the final pages, we realize it is Milly, and not her mother, who merits our fullest attention.

"Ali Land’s sensational psychological thriller could easily be predicated on Philip Larkin’s classic poem on terrible parenting"

Judy Writes

Richard and I read this book at the same time and after a few pages we turned to each other and said in unison: ‘Larkin!’ Because Ali Land’s sensational psychological thriller could easily be predicated on Philip Larkin’s classic poem on terrible parenting, which is about how your mum and dad inevitably **** you up.

The bible talks of the sins of the father being passed on to the son, but Good Me Bad Me is exclusively about the sins of the mother and the terrible effect they have on the daughter.

And what sins these are. Annie’s mother is a serial killer: a total psychopath who tortures and murders small children. She has multiple victims, and Annie is one of them – as well as assaulting her own child, the mother ruthlessly grooms her and tries to twist her developing mind out of shape. It is a nightmare of a childhood and we see it in flashback. We enter the story when Annie, now re-named Milly, is fifteen and in foster care. Her mother is about to go on trial for her repugnant crimes and Milly is being coached again – this time, to give evidence against her own flesh and blood.

Richard and Judy Interview Ali Land

Good grief, where did you come up with the idea for this novel?

I’ve always been interested in children who are different. When I was thirteen I wanted to know why the two ten-year-old boys in the Bulger case killed a toddler; when I was fifteen both Lord of the Flies and The Wasp Factory had a profound effect on me; as a student at university I did a degree in children’s mental health. Later, in my career as a qualified nurse, I looked after a fifteen-year-old girl who no longer wanted to live because she believed that no matter what she did, she would end up being bad like her mother who had been involved in the serious harm of young children. I expand on this in a longer piece about the inspiration for Good Me Bad Me at the end of this book, but the burden this girl carried, together with other children I looked after who came from violent, dysfunctional homes or who existed with parental legacies of evil, left me feeling haunted. I wanted to know if, like me, other people could forgive a child like Milly, as she asks the reader to do, both in the opening and closing lines of this book. It was from this experience that the novel was born.

The story develops the whole nature-versus-nurture argument extremely well. Where do you stand on this?

We used to call this argument ‘the slippery fish’ on the adolescent unit where I worked. How to measure the unmeasurable. Even after a decade of working in mental health, I’m not sure where I stand. I don’t believe a child can be born evil, but I do believe certain traits are inherited and in a loving, nurturing environment can lie dormant. Put that same person in an abusive, violent environment, however, and those traits grow in strength. I’ve seen twins brought up separately who end up developing the same mental illness. I’ve seen children who you would expect to be ill, but aren’t; the factor of resilience muddying the water further. I’ve seen teenagers take on traits, not just from the parent they live with, but the absent parent they haven’t seen since they were a baby. I’ve seen all of that, yet I still don’t know. It has always, and will always be the greyest of grey areas, but even if it seems futile at points, we should never stop trying to understand or care for our young people, the product of both their environment and their genes.

Female serial killers and child abusers are, mercifully, rarer than the male. That’s what makes the mother such a shocking character. Was the psychopath in this story always going to be female, or did you ever consider making her Milly/Annie’s father?

It never crossed my mind to make the killer male. It’s an uncomfortable thought, I know, that a woman – the giver of life, the nurturer – could cause grievous harm against children, but in my experience as a nurse I witnessed not necessarily physical, but certainly psychological violence existing between mothers and daughters. Milly’s mother is a powerful force in the book, but the story is Milly’s: her daily struggle to be good, the Siamese twins inside her at war. Readers often comment on the fact that I never name the mother, which I do, only once, but most people miss it because their focus is on Milly, as it should be. The notion lives on that bad women are somehow worse than bad men, but writing this story, for me, wasn’t about what Milly’s mother did. It was about how that affected her daughter and although an unsettling topic, it’s important that there are no boundaries to what we explore within the realms of fiction.

Follow that, as they say. Well? What’s next?

I used to tell the kids I looked after, ‘Just do your best and don’t forget to breathe,’ and that’s what’s next for me as I begin the journey of writing the difficult second novel. It’s a thriller set on a scarcely inhabited Scottish island where young twins – who have grown up in complete isolation – become fascinated by a group of newcomers on a training expedition. There are secrets aplenty, and as the end of summer looms a dark undercurrent threatens to rise, shattering the idyll of island life forever.

Book Club Questions for Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

  1. Discuss the relationships within the foster family that Milly is placed in
  1. Ali Land is a Child and Adolescent Mental Health nurse – how do you think this affects the way she has written this novel?
  1. What does this story tell us about the question of nature vs nurture?
  1. Discuss the ending of the novel.

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