I picked up a copy of Sarah Duguid’s Look at Me when I went to have lunch with a friend who works at her publisher. I’m never one to turn down a free book, but I did think the cover wasn’t particularly enticing – I thought it had a bit of a Woman’s Own feel to it. Shame really, because the book is excellent.
Look at Me is the story of a shattered family who are picking up the pieces in the wake of a domestic tragedy. Elizabeth is looking for something in her father’s study when she finds a letter written to him by his daughter, a half-sister Elizabeth never knew she had. This is explosive news, especially given the half-sister is younger than Elizabeth, whose mother has recently died. Reeling with a sense of betrayal, she decides to contact the sister, Eunice, only to find that she regrets inviting her into their lives, and that the decision is remarkably hard to undo.
Eunice, with her brittle brightness, is a perfect study in passive aggression. I found myself panicking on Elizabeth’s behalf as she slid a little too comfortably into Elizabeth’s dead mother’s bedroom. I wanted desperately to stop her cleaning everything, to stop her trying to change things. I, like Elizabeth, wanted her to know her place, and I wanted Elizabeth to put her there.
She’s brilliantly drawn, Eunice, because she’s so fundamentally unlikeable, and yet, in many ways she’s the victim. Her mother, abandoned by Elizabeth’s posh hippy father after a free love experiment affair, gave her up for adoption to a woman she is now estranged from and a man who she loved but who recently died. She wants to know where she comes from, she wants to fit in and yet…Duguid does a masterful job at making her grating. Her insensitivity is pitch perfect, and the way she manoeuvres and manipulates, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not, creates a tangible sense of dread in the reader. Elizabeth fears her taking over, taking everything she loves from her, and you’re swept up in that feeling of skin-prickling anxiety. You want Eunice gone, the house isn’t safe with her in it although you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is you think she’s going to do.
The interesting thing about this book is that Elizabeth and her family are often, in their own ways, not very likeable either – or at least they don’t occupy the moral high ground of the book any more than Eunice. Elizabeth is directionless and a little childish, her brother Ig a bit inert. Father Julian is probably the least likeable of all – this is all his fault in the first place, after all, and he never seems to want to take responsibility. Plus his long-winded lectures on hippy free love are intensely irritating. Aunt Valerie was a favourite of mine since she was the only person who seemed to have the measure of Eunice from the beginning and actually be ready to take her to task, but is she just taking out her anger at her sister’s death on a vulnerable young girl? Duguid’s light touch means we get to ask these questions and they echo right back at us. The novel has no prescriptive answers.
I was hugely interested to learn, in the author’s Q&A at the back of the book, that the idea for it came to Duguid when she discovered as an adult that she too had a half-sister. Hers was conceived under different circumstances and went her own way after meeting her half-siblings a few times for lunch. No dramatic Eunice-esque story there. But in these pages Duguid captures another possible outcome with gripping fluency and real emotional intelligence. Look at Me is a brilliant domestic drama with just the right balance of charge and creepiness.