Review: How To Kill Your Family, by Bella Mackie
So - I really, really liked this book on the one hand, but also the ending made me so annoyed and irritated it kind of ruined it in retrospect. Also, like, it was funny; but let's be honest, there isn't a huge amount of literary quality here.
This is the story of Grace Bernard, a twentysomething woman living in London who finds out that her birth father's family treated her mother terribly, refused to recognise her, and are what she basically considers to be a drain on society - so she sets out to murder them all, one by one. An entirely bonkers plot summary that is guaranteed to pull me in, because A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is one of my absolute favourite shows and this is basically just a novelized version of that musical (which, sidenote, I highly recommend you listen to the soundtrack to if you have not yet. Still waiting for it to make it to the West End so I can see it performed...).
Anyway, the things I liked about this novel are thus:
It is very, very funny. Grace's inner monologue and the way she justifies her choices are both independently hilarious, and the way they work together is both dark and honest and funny. I was laughing out loud and fully agreeing with why she killed her horrible family members ("They live in Spain and never bothered to learn Spanish") before I remembered that I am not meant to find the cold-blooded murder of other human beings either funny or justified (my Catholic guilt is deeply embedded into my psyche).
The narrative pacing of the murders, and the subversion of the traditional emotional payoff you would expect from this type of novel, is well-crafted and propulsive, and keeps you moving along nicely, enjoying the ride, and not paying too much attention to the aforementioned lack of literary quality in the writing or the dialogue.
Picking up on the literary and cultural references to other books and stories in this genre - that was really fun and made for an enjoyable treasure hunt throughout the basic ridiculousness that is this type of storyline.
Grace is a fully-realized, nuanced, fun character to inhabit the head of.
But because you're not really here to listen to me talk about books I like (let's be honest, the fun ones are always the ones I skewer), here are the things that I didn't like about this book - and that ultimately tipped it into a lower-rated read than I was perhaps expecting it to be.
I really didn't like the pacing shifts between Grace's murder of her family and her being in jail for the one murder she didn't do. It felt just a bit too neat, a bit too pat, and created a framing device (Grace writing her memoirs from jail) that erred more on the side of rip-off than knowing nod to other giants of the genre. Plus, the story of her accusation and murder trial were never as fully developed as her actual murder plot and so always felt more tacked-on than an actual impetus of narrative drive.
The secondary characters - mainly her friend Jimmy - were not nearly as fully fleshed-out as Grace were and so were difficult to keep track of or really even care about.
The ending. It was meant to be a subversive twist on the type of resolution you usually get in this type of story, and on one level I really appreciate that and can completely see what the author was trying to do - I just think that if she had sprinkled that more in throughout the novel (maybe by cutting out the prison framing device I have already mentioned I didn't like?) instead of dropping it in rather unexpectedly at the end, it would have had more of an impact. As it is, I just felt cheated of a satisfactory ending.
Basically, my main gripe with this novel is that all the elements for a good, fun story were there, it just faltered a bit in its execution. The manuscript could maybe have used two or three more drafts, is what I'm saying.