Amy Mason’s The Other Ida, winner of the 2014 Dundee International Book Prize, is a story steeped both in the reckless reality and the dramatic imagination of its protagonist, Ida Irons. Turning thirty and entirely irresponsible, Ida is returning to a musty house by the sea that she never felt at home in, reuniting with her shrewish younger sister Alice for the funeral of their mother, erratic playwright Bridie Adair. The novel follows Ida as she wades through waves of her own guilt and self-hatred, stemming from the time she almost drowned Alice as a child, and tries to decipher where she ends and “The other Ida”, the titular character of her mother’s famous play, begins.
The Ida we meet is a lost soul, through means of her own self-sabotage, shacked up in a derelict flat with an unreliable boyfriend who facilitates her addictions and inability to hold down a job. She is haunted by the insecurities Bridie has passed down to her and both fears and accepts that she and her mother are one and the same. Both women are plagued by their inner demons and dependent on alcohol, yet possess an incredible creative talent for telling stories. She has a troubled relationship with Alice who, almost in rebellion to her mother, has become a controlled and organised vegan, but who is nevertheless suffering from an eating disorder and her own anxieties.
The sisters find that only by lending support to each other may they begin to remove themselves from the shadows of Bridie’s twisted play, her only legacy. It is by sorting through Bridie’s old possessions that the two can begin to move on from the oppressive hold that Bridie has mentally shackled them within. Ida and Alice must not only resolve their own childhood conflicts but also discover where their secretive mother really came from, in order to truly come to terms with the years of emotional abuse they suffered.
The story transitions between the past and the present, interweaving Ida’s current state with her childhood memories, each grim flashback revealing a wider perspective on how Ida has developed into the person she is now. As in her first novel, Mason handles themes of family, heartbreak and dysfunctional relationships with a sobering honesty, without patronising or glorifying Ida as a character. Whilst Ida’s refusal to help herself can occasionally make her a frustrating protagonist, her self-deprecating wit and fiercely unapologetic spirit charms both readers and other characters within the story. The setting of the novel is fully realised, such that the reader can immediately picture a run-down, barren seaside town that has been left in squalor, can step inside the dilapidated house which is so barren that it feels as if Bridie has been dead for much longer than she has, can feel the cold water lap against sand on the beach.
At its heart, The Other Ida is a journey of self-discovery, the irrevocably fractured bond between mother and daughter leading to two sisters reclaiming their own identities. In presenting a tale of emotional abuse which travels across three generations of women, Mason does not need to rely on an overly complicated plot in order to tell the story. She takes her time paving what is almost a character study for Ida and this, combined with the underlying mystery of who really is the “other Ida” – Bridie, Alice, or the Ida from the play – makes for an entirely addictive read. Although Ida’s future may seem bleak, so deep is the reader’s investment in her well-being that one will no doubt pray that, in the end, a wish upon a car crash is a sign that there is hope for her yet.