Weighing in at 500 pages, Someone Like Me presents the reader a considerable challenge. To decide if you’d like it, having enjoyed M. R. Carey’s previous The Girl with All the Gifts or Fellside is not a surefire indication. There is a blurb on the back cover from Lauren Beukes that’s a clue; the flavor of Someone Like Me is very much like The Shining Girls, including the setting in a run-down city in middle-America, time travel, serial killers, and paranormal features. If also you liked the notorious WTF ending to Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, you will have a good time with this one.
I was less happy with the setting, a very downscale section of Pittsburgh called Larimer. It’s daring of an English author to attempt to create American characters and Carey went to a lot of trouble to use appropriate details and language (including a can of Sunoco gasoline), though a few idioms such as “fit for purpose” “lived rough” and “slept rough” and “washing-up gloves” seemed out of place. It was also gratifying that the English edition uses American spelling and punctuation—I wish American publishers would extend the same courtesy to English authors. I caught only one distinctive mark of Pittsburgh dialect: Fran’s father addresses her as “doll baby.” But somehow the setting did not quite work for me. I wonder if Carey would have done better artistically putting the story in Liverpool, with lots of Scouse dialect.
Maybe the principal paranormal device, the Skadegamutc, determined the American setting, though even then Canada or New England would be more likely. Fran Watts, a sixteen year old girl, was abducted a decade ago and kept at a derelict motel by a mad killer called the Shadowman. She was found, apparently unharmed, but accompanied by a defective memory, a mammoth case of PTSD and a companion visible only to Fran, an armor-clad sword-carrying fox (actually a vixen) named Lady Jinx. At school she befriends Zac, whose mother Liz is a victim of domestic abuse by her violent ex Marc. But in the very opening chapter, as Marc attacks her, Liz suddenly discovers superpowers of self-defense, and gives him a what-for with a broken bottle.
Though invisible companions, paranormal abilities, and the living dead are familiar items in fantasy fiction, Carey gives them new and engaging features. Nothing ultimately is explained, but if you believe in theories of multiple universes and that time is ultimately an illusion, you have some notion of where everything is coming from. There is also a thoroughly unpleasant villain, but one that you will sometimes cheer for, because some of the victims quite deserve what happens to them. (See illustration above.)
I fear that I must rank Someone Like Me below GWATG and Fellside. The principal character of the former is more attractive, though Fran and her vulpine escort were great fun. And the spiritual issues in Fellside were much deeper and moving. Zac and Fran make a great couple, but their estrangement felt dictated by the plot rather than being consistent with character. I am very annoyed by the “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” distinction: both should work in harmony. Artistically, the book is too long. Writing teachers tell us to use dialogue rather than narration to inform the reader, but sometimes it would be better to have a paragraph of narrative instead of two pages of less than sparkling dialogue to convey the reader the same information. The final violent thriller conclusion was necessary, but it went on too long. Cutting this book by a quarter would lose little.
M. R. Carey continues to be the best contemporary author to occupy the borderland between fantasy and “realistic” fiction and his sheer inventiveness is thoroughly on display. If you enjoy this genre of literature, even with a bit of flab this is a very good read.