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How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie — revenge goes flat

Cover of How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie - a novel that has been called "funny, compulsive and wickedly dark" but in truth is over-written and flat

Take the plot of the Ealing film classic Kind Hearts of Coronets. Make your central character an anti-hero assassin in the vein of Villanelle from Killing Eve. Add in a lot of snarky comments about twenty-first century life and you get the essence of How to Kill Your Family.

It might have worked. But it didn’t.

How to Kill Your Family is the first-person narrative of Grace Bernard, a young woman who has waged a campaign of hatred against a millionaire and his family. He refused to acknowledge her as his daughter, leaving her and her mother to eke out a living in a tiny flat while he jets between his luxury homes.

Grace has vowed to get revenge by killing off his family and then claiming their fortune.

While in prison for a murder she did not commit, she begins to keep a journal in which she documents the six murders she did commit. Each death is described in detail, Grace relishing in her ability to plan and execute killings so flawlessly that she was never suspected.

I wasn’t greatly enthused when Bella Mackie’s novel was chosen by our book club. Despite all the hoopla surrounding its publication, it didn’t sound like my cup of tea.

I thought from the opening couple of chapters that I was about to be proved wrong. How to Kill Your Family had a strong narrative voice and some amusingly cynical comments about the empty lives of rich people. But it went downhill rapidly.

The novelty value of those cynical comments wore off before I’d got a quarter of the way into the book. Making everything and everyone — bobble hat wearers, old people, influencers, fat people and environmentalists — a target for snide remarks didn’t make the book any funnier. In fact it had the reverse effect; I got more and more frustrated when I turned the page to find yet another round of sniping about one group or another.

He golfs, she spends a lot of her time getting things injected into her face, which has had the strange effect of making her look like a very old toddler. A waste of life, and that’s all before I tell you just how racist they are. Oh fuck it, you can imagine. They live in Marbella and yet they speak no Spanish, there you go. No more explanation needed.

That was one of several issues I had with this novel.

First of all the main character simply didn’t work for me.

Grace Bernard is a thoroughly unlikeable person. Single-minded to the point of obsession about her plan to exact revenge, she freely exploits other people’s vulnerabilities to get what she needs. .

I don’t need to like characters but it helps to engage with them if there are some nuances to their personalities. I didn’t get that with this novel. Having killed off six people — a few of them in gruesome circumstances in a sauna or a sex club — Grace shows little remorse. Even people who had nothing to do with her father’s treatment of her and her mother got bumped off simply because they are heirs to the fortune she believes is rightly hers.

Then there were the inconsistencies in her character.

Grace is clearly intelligent for example— she comes up with ingenious ways to kill her relatives without leaving any trail. Yet she completely misreads the character of her cell-mate in prison. She is scathing about wealthy people with their expensive tastes in clothing, wine, and houses yet after her mother’s death she was raised by a high-income couple who taught her to enjoy the finer things in life. So Grace has benefited from a similar privileged life that she criticises other people for enjoying.

I read books, I follow world affairs, I have opinions on more than just shoes and golf clubs. I am better than these people, that’s not in doubt. But they look happy despite their ignorance. Perhaps because of it. What is there to worry about? None of these idiots are thinking about climate change, they’re wondering what to wear on the yacht tomorrow.

The other aspect that didn’t work for me was the lack of variation in the narrative. It progressed in almost a formulaic manner. We got sections where Grace described how she plotted her next murder, then in exacting detail we got the killing ( with a confusing switch to present tense). There were some chapters where we’re treated to her reflections on life in prison, the futile attempts to reform prisoners and the stupidity of her fellow inmates. And then it was onto the next murder.

There’s no real drama. No point at which she is almost caught in the act which would have come as a welcome intermission.

Given all the hoopla surrounding Bella Mackie’s novel, I was surprised how overwhelming tedious it turned out to be. How To Kill Your Family was described in the publisher’s blurb as “a wickedly dark romp about class, family, love” and “outrageously funny, compulsive and subversive.”

It was none of those things. Yet another contemporary novel that was over-sold. If I hadn’t been reading it for our book club meet up, it would have gone into the DNF pile.

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