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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie: A review

Jill Cushen reviews Bella Mackie's new novel 'How To Kill Your Family'.

How To Kill Your Family is the ideal how-to guide. Within a week of finishing this book, I had successfully killed my family. And gotten away with it. 

Not quite. I haven’t been inspired to send my own relatives to the grave but Bella Mackie’s first foray into the world of fiction did tap into a complex emotional streak I didn’t know I had. This darkly hilarious and sometimes unsettling debut novel tests the reader’s sense of morality and their perception of what it means to be a murderer. 

I read How to Kill Your Family while at home during the vacation and given my own parent’s unnerved curiosity as they scanned the book’s title, I can understand the necessity of the dedication to Mackie’s parents: “I promise never to kill either of you.” 

Bella Mackie, daughter of former Guardian editor and Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Alan Rusbridger, is a journalist who has written for VOGUE, The Guardian, VICE and GQ, to name but a few. Her first book, Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, was a Sunday Times bestseller which bravely chronicled her battle with anxiety and her discovery of how exercise could help lift her from the deep-rooted mental and personal problems she ended her twenties with. 

How to Kill Your Family also takes the reader on a psychological journey of sorts. The novel’s protagonist, 28-year-old Grace Bernard, sets off on a mission to eliminate all members of her family with an end-goal of seeking revenge on her father, millionaire businessman and stereotypical playboy who abandoned her and her mother as a baby.

We meet Grace in prison. But as rings true throughout the novel as a whole, she is there for reasons we later discover are far more complicated than would be contained in a straightforward murder – arrest – imprisonment plot. 

Amidst the chaos of the calculated revenge plot are flashes of humour and Grace’s hilarious but true observations about the mundanity and bizarreness of life. It is a surprisingly uplifting story in places and while I never felt that her victims deserved their ultimate fates, Grace’s certainty and confidence was almost able to convince me of the necessity of her deeds.

Grace is an intriguing character who at times, the reader can only admire for her gumption, drive and unapologetic cruelty. I don’t aspire to become a Grace-like psychopathic killer, but I would like to imitate certain aspects of her strong but complicated character in my own life. Her ambition and determinism is, while directed in completely the wrong places, inspiring. She is exactly what a woman is told she shouldn’t be. She is goal driven, selfish and behaves in a way that diametrically opposes the stereotypical image of a subdued woman. Nobody would consider Grace a role-model but her sense of freedom from the many expectational chains placed on almost every human being, must have made her an incredibly cathartic character to write about. 

She plans with extreme precision and executes these plans with ease and no regrets. It is only on reflection that I realise just how vile her deeds were. While I was absorbed in her world, the violence and immorality of her acts was camouflaged by her planning, precision and rationalisation.

Writing from prison, Grace tells the reader: “After all, almost nobody else in the world can possibly understand how someone, by the tender age of 28, can have calmly killed six members of her family. And then happily got on with the rest of her life, never to regret a thing.” Perhaps this assertion in the prologue is true, but having spent eighteen chapters immersed in Grace’s head, I came pretty close to understanding just how she did it. 

I never fully comprehended Grace’s motives for adding ‘eliminate my entire family’ to her to-do list, nor did I grasp the full extent of the impact her father’s abandonment had on her or her mother, but feeling that I now know her intimately as a character, I can understand how she undertook and carried out such a task. Grace is an anti-heroine who, despite everything, I was rooting for. Such is the power of Mackie’s writing that I was plunged so far into the protagonist’s psyche that not only did I observe her thoughts but I began to understand her, almost unquestionably.

The novel ends with a disappointing twist, one which I felt lacked originality. However, I was furious at the novel’s conclusion for a host of other reasons. I wanted Grace to succeed. I wanted her to get away with all she planned to. Perhaps it is the master planner in me, but I wanted her to tick off all the items on her to-do list. 

No novel is ever perfect, especially for a hyper critical English student such as myself, but here let me focus on all that was enjoyable about this novel. I urge you to delve into the mind of this perplexing and amusing character on her journey to wipe out her family, if only to reconfirm your suspicions that the human mind is strangely complicated, or if not that, to get some ideas for how you might tackle your own checklist!

Image credit: “The Family” by James Francis Hopfensperger’, by Christian Collins, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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