Review: How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

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I think Bella Mackie said it best.

“Christ, I’m rambling again.”

Mackie, Bella. How to Kill Your Family: A Novel (p. 327). The Overlook Press. Kindle Edition.

How to Kill Your Family is not really a book about a young woman killing her family. How to Kill Your Family is a book about a young woman moving through classist British society and roasting everyone and everything with what I think is meant to be the author’s razor sharp wit. I think that Grace is intended to be an anti-hero. I think we are meant to, if not like her, at least care what happens to her. I think we are meant to find Grace’s social observation’s humorous. I say that “I think” these things because I read the whole book wondering if the author was aware of how insufferable Grace was as a character. I can see it both ways. I can see this as a satire of people like Grace and I can see this as a kind of celebration of people like Grace.

The number of words that are spent conveying the plot of the book and developing its characters is vanishingly small. The bulk of the page count is not spent killing anyone or telling you why they deserve to die. The bulk of the book is spent making sweeping generalizations about a person’s character based on an observation of their physical traits and/or outward presentation. It is meant to be humorous. The reader is meant to think “Oh that is spot on! I know someone exactly like that.” Unfortunately, Bella Mackie is a one trick pony. This stereotyping is the only kind of humor or insight that is provided.

Taken in isolation, some of these observations are genuinely poignant, but when combined with a constant stream of judgmental attacks on everyone and everything it starts to get very tiresome. At the risk of engaging in a little Mackie-style logic myself, I found myself constantly thinking about the people I know who complain about absolutely everyone and everything. People who constantly prop themselves up by tearing others down. I found myself thinking about times when I have been that person. It has been my experience that people who engage in this sort of thing are doing it defensively, even if they are incapable of admitting that to themselves. It is in line with Grace’s character that she would pre-emptively attack everything rather than allow herself to be hurt by showing the world any vulnerability. It is in line with Grace’s character that she would do this subconsciously, and since the story is told from her perspective, we wouldn’t be able to see it as a symptom of her trauma until she saw it as a symptom of her trauma.

Where the book loses me is the blurriness of the message. I can see a world where a Bella Mackie who has struggled with mental health, is writing satirically about that experience with Grace representing her dark side. I can also see a world where Bella Mackie is unintentionally putting a lot of her own unresolved baggage into the character of Grace and expecting an audience to relate to it, not realizing that this character’s head is a painfully frustrating place to inhabit.

If I’m being honest, this is a very charitable analysis of the text. The truth is that while Mackie has an excellent command of language, she’s not much of a writer, if that makes sense. The book is poorly plotted, poorly paced, it ends suddenly with a barely foreshadowed twist and no resolution to any of the main threads, and it isn’t like there wasn’t time in all of this to squeeze some sort of message or meaning in.

I’ll end the review with an example of what it is like to actually read this book, and you can decide if Mackie’s intentions are worth trying to decipher:

Bryony Artemis has one of those faces you’ve seen before. I don’t mean that she looks like a girl you know – she absolutely doesn’t – but she’s got a look that social media has made ubiquitous. Pillowy lips, a bundle of glossy, wavy hair, a body encased in athleisure wear – far too thin, but one that the owner would go out of their way to say was strong, emphasising their biceps, their ‘booty’. The kind of skinny that some women profess not to think about as if it’s not all they think about. Women like Bryony look startlingly beautiful in photos but a bit ‘uncanny valley’ in real life. I love that description – the roboticist Masahiro Mori coined it in 1970 to describe our revulsion towards robots or computer-generated images that look almost like human beings . . . but not quite. The Bryonys of the world are flawless, their features plumped and filled and smoothed. In photos it works. In real life it’s deadening. It makes me long for the days of wonky breast implants and terrible facelifts when at least the insecurities that made women mutilate themselves were visible in their appearance. You could laugh at the Bride of Wildenstein or be sad that she did that to herself. This tribe can’t show anything with their faces, nothing that would drive you to feel empathy, pity, or even derision.

She was wearing the kind of expensive trainers that have never seen the inside of a gym, skin-tight leggings with electric blue stripes down the side, and her tiny top half was swaddled in an enormous puffer jacket, not zipped up but wrapped around her and held in place by a giant cross-body bag. She looked like every other girl on Instagram. Except that the bag was Chanel, and she’d embellished the look with gold rings, diamond studs, and a small Rolex. The markers which show you that you’ll never be able to ‘shop the look’ because the look costs more than you earn in a year. The look costs more than your parents paid for their house. The look costs more than you’ll ever scrape together to buy your own house. I’m kidding, you won’t ever be able to buy a house.

Mackie, Bella. How to Kill Your Family: A Novel (pp. 250-251). The Overlook Press. Kindle Edition


I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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