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15th March 2022

How to Kill Your Family, kill subtlety, and kill nuance

Bella Mackie’s debut fiction novel How to Kill Your Family is let down by its lack of subtlety and its caricatured characters
How to Kill Your Family, kill subtlety, and kill nuance
Photo: Aileen Loftus @ The Mancunion

How to Kill Your Family is the debut novel of Bella Mackie, author of the non-fiction work Jog On. It is a book that is trying very very hard in a lot of ways, and while it is occasionally brilliant, it just misses the mark.

It follows antiheroine Grace Bernard as she gleefully but calmly recounts the way she has murdered several members of her family. The book is written as Grace’s diary entries whilst she languishes in prison. 

The characters, Grace included, are all caricatured and often foul. This is mostly intentional, but lacks any subtlety, and suggests that a large number of people have absolutely no depth, which rings untrue. Grace’s judgemental portrayals of others only serve to make her unlikeable, when perhaps aiming for tongue and cheek.

The novel would be a shoe in for a BBC Three box set. The chapter structure lends itself to serialisation and it is almost as though it has been written with the TV drama potential in mind. Grace is a glamorous and fashionable murderess with an eye for the theatrical, which has strong hints of Killing Eve’s Villanelle. 

“Almost nobody else in the world can possibly understand how someone, by the tender age of 28, can have calmly killed six members of her family. And then happily got on with the rest of her life, never to regret a thing.”

In its defence, How To Kill Your Family is moreish, and I found myself unable to put it down. The plot is fast paced, with Grace quickly moving from one victim to the next. It made for a great quick holiday-read (I actually read it while on holiday with my family, giving the title an amusing nature when I left it lying around) and it was suitably distracting. Luckily it isn’t a genuine how-to guide and my family are still alive and well. 

Bella Mackie’s previous work, Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, is a personal account of how she overcame mental health problems through running and achieved success. How to Kill Your Family is Bella Mackie’s first work of fiction, and though thankfully not autobiographical (the book is dedicated to her parents, with the line ‘I promise never to kill either of you’) the protagonist also runs regularly, which isn’t the greatest advertisement for running as a way to clear your head. 

“I have killed several people (some brutally, others calmly) and yet I currently languish in jail for a murder I did not commit.”

Bella Mackie is married to BBC Radio DJ Greg James and daughter of journalist Alan Rusbridge. These are irrelevant facts when considering whether to read her novel, but perhaps relevant facts when considering offering her a book deal. 

85% of the way through the book the narrator switches, in the form of a long email. This portion is even more cliche and tips the storyline, already teetering on the edge of believable, into ludicrous. It is perhaps supposed to be a twist, but it was neither surprising nor original. The very end actually made me physically roll my eyes. 

In short, it read like a debut fiction novel, with some honing and added subtlety required. I enjoyed reading it, but I won’t be holding my breath for Mackie’s next work of fiction.

Aileen Loftus

Aileen Loftus

Books Editor

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