Any book that name checks Matt Johnson’s The The, and in particular Uncertain Smile, has got to have a lot of things going for it, right? In fact, this book, Alter Ego, the debut thriller from English writer K.A. Masson, is peppered with plenty of musical references throughout its taut narrative, with two of the story’s main characters at one point going through their Spotify playlists and cranking out some banging tunes, with no decade being left out. But it was the The The reference that sat with me. I haven’t listened to this band for some time, and when I’m done writing this review, I will queue up Soul Mining and get all nostalgic.
Alexandra (Alex) Kendrew is a single mother who lives with her young son Ned in suburban London. Estranged from the boy’s father Sean for some time when the novel begins, Alex trawls dating websites looking for love and someone to settle down with. She’s a freelance photographer who juggles her professional and personal life, and during the course of the story, drops balls on a regular basis. Some of her friends question her lifestyle choices and parenting skills, but Alex knows what she’s doing.
Or does she?
When Alter Ego begins, Alex is arrested for the attempted murder of her boyfriend Mal Russell, who was brutally stabbed the night before in the flat he shares with a friend. Alex has been identified by said friend as the woman who she admitted to the flat and subsequently stabbed Mal. Alex doesn’t believe what’s happened to her. There is no way she could’ve done what she’s accused of. She was at home with Ned. The detectives investigating the case don’t believe her, and lock her up in a cell while they collect enough evidence to charge her. Alex’s arrest happens in the first chapter, so there’s an immediacy to the story already. What the author does next is take us back four years and work us through Alex’s life until the time of her arrest.
Alex hooks up with a couple of men she met online, some better than others, but lands on Mal, who appears to be the man of her dreams. Things go pear-shaped quickly when Ned wanders in and catches them in an private but awkward moment. As Mal still holds a candle for a recent ex, he ghosts Alex shortly afterwards. She is distraught, but manages to pick herself up off the floor when Adrian comes into her life. Then things take a really nasty turn, with Adrian turning out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not for the first time, Alex is left with a mess to sort out, but desperate to not be alone, she jumps at the chance of salvation when Mal comes back into her life.
I’ll leave it at that for the plot, for fear of giving too much away. I would prefer to leave you in the more than capable hands of K.A. Masson to take it from here. I had to remind myself that Alter Ego is a debut novel, because it reads like Ms. Masson has had a number of novels under her belt already. She is masterful at holding the story together despite having to fill in a lot of blanks over a four year period. The tension rises with each chapter, and I confess to reading the last third of the book in one late night sitting. I had to find out what happened, and I wasn’t disappointed.
One proviso, though: Alex as a character may not appeal to those who prefer their main characters whiter than white, with nary a blemish to their name. But for me, it was important to relate to Alex as a woman troubled by her past and fearful of her future. At times she is the author of her own misfortune, making the same mistakes in dating time and again, without really learning from past behaviour. This is a completely human characteristic. We want things to go well for ourselves, and when our friends point out our failures, we can sometimes take this criticism as a personal insult rather than a learning moment. Ms Masson does well by giving us a deep insight into Alex’s thought processes with her tight first person point of view. We see what Alex sees; we feel what she does; and we want her to do better. She could — and this is something to keep in mind — be an unreliable narrator. Not everthing that happens is what it seems; the same applies to the people around her.
Alter Ego is an intelligent psychological thriller with moments of violence that will make you uncomfortable. Domestic violence is a blight on modern society, and the author brings a lot of research into her story. I seriously look forward to what she writes next.
I wish to thank NetGalley and the publishers for supplying me with a copy of Alter Ego in return for an honest review.