I have killed several people (some brutally, others calmly) and yet I currently languish in jail for a murder I did not commit.
If you like dark comedy, I think you’ll really enjoy this book. Mackie writes a really clever twist on the usual crime novel by making her narrator, Grace, fully transparent and unapologetic about her crimes. The premise is familiar; a confessional written from jail, a wrongful conviction, and the idea of vengeful killing in connection to a dysfunctional family. Yet, somehow, this novel feels really fresh and different from anything I’ve read before.
I think this book has the perfect balance between satirical comedy and deep social analysis. This definitely isn’t an easy task, and Mackie toes the line to create the perfect anti-hero. This book really had me questioning who I was rooting for, and to what extent my investment in the characters became morally problematic. We all love a complicated crime case that defies the evil, soulless villain stereotype and draws in a whole manner of issues that complicate our notions of human compassion and justice- this is exactly what How to Kill Your Family presents.
The plot is very well-written, and maintains momentum despite the series of murders on paper creating a fairly monotonous plot. I don’t think this book is overly gory or violent, but it does offer detailed descriptions of the process of murdering someone, so if you are particularly sensitive towards death I perhaps would avoid it. I listened to this as an audiobook and it never got too intense for me, but it’s definitely something to take into consideration.
Mackie doesn’t shy away from the darker sides and actions of Grace as a character, and yet the anti-hero still gained my sympathy due to her dysfunctional family. I think my opinion varied throughout the books and with each murder as to whether I could feel some measure of understanding for her motivation, but this never impacted my enjoyment of the book. All of the characters are unlikable to a certain extent, including Grace, who is arrogant and has a superiority complex that at times made me physically eye roll in response. However, I think this just made her and her crimes seem more realistic- you couldn’t have a likable narrator killing off her family.
Overall, without spoiling anything, this is a really great crime novel that is perfect for anyone who loves dark humour and is looking for their next read.
In-Depth Review (Spoilers!)
I liked the structure of the narrative, and how it followed Grace’s enactment of her plan with the present day dispersed throughout. At first the time jumps confused me, but I think that was just because I was listening to it as an audiobook and therefore not as tuned in as I would be reading it. I though the murder of her grandparents was a really interesting starting point, because it was the death that felt the most movie-like and outlandish (how many people have plotted to drive their grandparents off the side of the road in a foreign country?). Here, we get to see Grace in action before we have much investment in her character and story, and it established from the outset the problematic nature of any positive feelings towards her that develop later. I did worry at times that it would get a bit repetitive watching her murder each person one by one, but the extreme circumstances of their deaths stopped that from happening. Killing someone by remotely locking a sauna door and strangling them in a sex club can never be seen as boring.
I though Mackie struck the right balance between telling Grace’s tragic backstory and not overdoing it, and it felt like the sympathy I ended up feeling for her was organic rather than orchestrated by the author. I really began to doubt my judgement of people and morality by the end of this novel, and was very uncomfortable by the fact I was rooting for her crimes to go undiscovered and for her to be successful. I think that stands testament to the quality of Mackie’s storytelling and writing. It managed to be both funny and tackle deep social and moral issues, which I think is a really difficult task.
The only problem I had plot-wise was with the ending. It all just felt a bit too convenient to have an outside player swoop in last minute and steal her success away. I liked that Harry was peppered into the narrative the whole time, but it did feel like a way that Mackie could resolve the uncomfortable feeling of rooting for a murderer by delivering some wrong-doing to her at the end. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the twist, but it just felt a little too abrupt for my liking. Perhaps this was again down to me listening to the audiobook (having a male voice suddenly start talking was a little confusing!). I wish we could’ve seen Grace’s reaction to finding out that her plan had been intercepted, which I think would’ve tied the story together a little better.
In terms of characters, Mackie did a good job at not turning the family into caricatures of dysfunction. The Artemis family were awful and arrogant, but they felt like real people of the upper class that are too deep in their own privilege to care about social issues. The same goes for Grace: of course she was unlikable and judgmental, but without it her ability to murder would have seemed completely unmatched to her personality. She is completely savage about anyone or anything she doesn’t agree with, and yet she remains somewhat relatable. I think the strength in her character came from her killing the family members directly implicated in her difficult childhood. When she starts killing peripheral members of the family, it becomes harder to sympathise with her.
Overall Thoughts and Rating
This was a really enjoyable, unique book that is perfect for anyone who likes dark comedy and books that address deeper social issues. The plot and the characters invite the reader to invest and challenge their own morality, which makes for an effective and intense reading experience.
I’m giving How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie 4 stars.