Look at Me by Sarah Duguid

2015 proof copy
2015 proof copy

The premise for Look at Me is simple but effective; and in fact I’d describe most of the book that way too. Our central character Lizzy and her brother Ig discover that their father has a daughter they didn’t know about. They find out by chance after coming across a letter from said daughter, and are rightly shocked and outraged that they did not know anything about this. They go for lunch with their new sister, Eunice, and their father, which is expectedly awkward and weird – and then Lizzy decides to invite Eunice to stay with them for a while so they can all get to know each other…

From this I wasn’t sure whether to expect a psychological thriller or a family melodrama, and Look At Me is somewhere in between. There are moments of ordinary family life, past dramas, and plenty of time devoted to Lizzy’s relationship with the director of a play she is in; but there is also an unnerving undercurrent of something not being quite right. Eunice is neurotic and needy, and you can’t quite tell if she is very naive, or actually scheming and calculating. At first the family are happy to welcome her into their home, but soon she starts to wheedle her way further into their lives. She outstays the initial weekend proposed for her visit, and a convenient split from her husband means she has to stay with them even further. She even ends up sleeping in Lizzy’s room.

While Eunice creates much of the plot in Look At Me, the book is really about Lizzy. Over the course of the novel her perspective develops nicely, as she works on her new play (she is trying to salvage her acting career), embarks on a fling with the director, and deals with the arrival of Eunice in her life. Lizzy and Ig’s mother has died a few years before the story starts, and as the novel goes on you realise that Lizzy and her family are still mired in their grief. Eunice suggests clearing out some of their mother’s clothes from the guest room, where she is sleeping, and suffice to say this does not go down well. As a reader you are angry at Eunice for interfering and for the disruption that she causes, but at the end of the book you’re not so sure. She is an antagonist for Lizzy and is certainly flawed, and does not always behave appropriately; but towards the end I wondered if really she helped Lizzy to move on, whether intentionally or not, by jolting her out of her complacency. It isn’t a pleasant experience for any of them, but Eunice stirs up the family in a fundamental way. And, in the end, I think this does them some good.

I found Lizzy to be an interesting central character, and enjoyed her development over the course of the story. She is flawed, and feels like a real person. At times Eunice also develops well, despite the fact that you never really feel like you know the real her. The world they inhabit is vivid and tangible, very ordinary and believable. I have to day I didn’t much like the character of Lizzy’s father Julian, but I’m not sure you’re supposed to.

At times I felt that Look At Me could have been a little grittier and psychological, but the tone throughout works very well. It is a sensitive and emotionally intelligent examination of what it means to be a family, to grow up and move on, and to accept the bad with the good. While not perfect it is a very accomplished debut novel, and I look forward to what comes next from Sarah Duguid.

*

Published in February 2016 by Tinder Press. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Buy your copy from Foyles here.

 

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