When I Was Me – review

when i was meWhen I Was Me, by Hilary Freeman, is one of those books that makes you go ‘is it…? what the…? Oh, now I get it…no, I’m wrong again’ and I love an author who can keep you guessing.

Ella wakes up one morning to discover that everything has changed. Well – not everything. She’s still apparently herself; her parents are still the same people. Except that they’re no longer divorced. They’re still living together with Ella, and the rows she remembers vividly from the past are still going on. Her bed is in a different position in the room, and her hair has grown – and is its natural colour. Even more frighteningly, her best friend doesn’t seem to know her, and her boyfriend isn’t her boyfriend either. And there are two girls who say she’s been THEIR best friend for ages. What the hell is going on?

Ella is a great character, and Hilary vividly portrays her confusion, fright, anger and suspicion. Has she been swapped with a body double? Is everyone playing some kind of elaborate joke on her? Has something really awful happened to her brain? Was her previous life, the one she remembers with absolute clarity, a dream? She stumbles through the new life, unable to pretend that she fits it, hurting the girls who thought they were her friends, and drawn to starting a relationship with the boyfriend she had ‘when she was her’ – and finding that this version of her Billy is actually a heck of a lot nicer than the previous one.

There’s the old woman too, who turns up like a gothic warning, pointing her bony finger at Ella and being malevolent and somehow psychic. Who is she, and why can’t anyone else see her?

I don’t think it’s spoilering the book to say that the central concept is that of parallel universes and quantum theory, and that’s certainly a really fascinating area for most people. Doctor Who did that fantastic episode with Donna and the Time Beetle (which I think was called ‘Turn Left’?). It brings home to us how important even tiny decisions could be: should I take this road or that one? Should I wear the sensible shoes or the beautiful ones? Should I go on that date with the stranger?

The problem, in a way, of the central concept is that no one knows whether it’s true or not, and that puts Hilary in a quandary as to how to end the story. I think the choice she made is a good one, and will leave the reader with things to think about but also a sense of satisfaction. There are still questions at the end of the story – over the old lady in particular, and over the moral stance of Daniel, the student who helps Ella to unravel what’s happened to her. But overall, this is an unusual and well-written YA psychological thriller with a great sense of tension and some Big Ideas handled deftly.

When I Was Me by Hilary Freeman is published by Hot Key and out today.

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