Alice, Ila, and Hanna were supposed to enjoy their last year of university. Of course, they made all the promises to stay close even after graduating, but each of them knew that was unlikely to happen. To compensate, they decided to make the most of the remainder of the academic year, including daring themselves to spend the night in a supposedly haunted house. Alice liked the fact that trespassing might ostensibly draw attention to housing inequality. Ila was less sure of spending any time there; she knew the lore about the house and won a game of chicken years ago by daring to actually touch the abandoned front door. The memory of the house still unsettled her, and when the girls arrived, all of them just felt like there was something off about the house. And Hannah, well, she just wanted the approval, the notice of her two best friends.
Three girls went into the house, but only two left, and what happened there changed Alice and Ila forever. The casual romance the pair had is irreparably broken, the trust required to be intimate with one another utterly destroyed. Both of them have tried to have as little to do with one another as possible, to not think about that night or that house. But that is easier said than done. Alice is haunted, sometimes literally, by a poster in her room. The image of a now-spent pop star will sometimes creep out of the paper, its mere presence a threat that can only be mitigated if Alice is completely still and silent. In contrast, Ila falls in with a group of activists who validate all her newly discovered loathsome feelings towards transgender women like Alice. Ila should be safe among fellow TERFS, yet the public image she’s built up threatens to come crashing down when someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer accuses Ila of attacking her. And through it all, Alice and Ila can never forget the fear, the horror of what happened in the house. Eventually, they realize the only way to deal with their broken emotions is to return.
Tell Me I’m Worthless is a literary-like novel from Alice Rumsfitt. Set in present day England, it touches on several social issues: being transgender, anti-trans sentiment, antisemitism, perceived and actual sexual assault, body dysphoria, obsession, and more. The story is mostly chronological, but it’s shot through with strong passages that connect to the history of the house and a pivotal chapter from Hannah’s perspective about the night the three girls went to the house. The first chunk of the book is in the present day and is dedicated to showing Alice and Ila’s individual lives as they currently are. Alice seems to be a casual drug user; it’s what helps her cope with existing among other people. She has a new group she favors spending time with (when she feels like spending time with anyone), though it’s ambiguous as to how deep these ties actually are. Personally, I liked Alice. And since she’s the first narrator we have who tells snippets of her version of what happened in the house, I just assumed that was how it was. Until we switch to Ila’s perspective.
Ila was a lot less likable to me than Alice because of her (new found or newly acknowledged) anti-trans beliefs. It’s hard to say if she redeemed herself in the story (more on that later), but I never noticed Ila misgendering Alice, and Ila and Alice eventually try to bury the hatchet in an attempt to overcome the trauma from that night they spent in the house. Outside of her relationship to Alice, Ila is shown to struggle with body image. And when Ila finally gets to narrate, it becomes clear that she clearly remembers what happened in the house very differently than Alice. But being second to reveal her experience of things wasn’t quite enough to balance the scales out. I was eager, though, to get to the part where we as readers actually go back in time to experience what befell the three girls that night in the house. And for what it’s worth, I really liked that that night was narrated by Hannah.
For a big part of the book, I was expecting Alice and Ila to reconcile. If not as lovers, then at least as friends who could be free of the guilt and trauma of what happened in the house. That said, the events in the story and Alice and Ila’s thoughts on one another don’t really end up supporting that idea. That left me a bit at loose ends about where the characters were going. At least, until we learn that they both feel a kind of pull towards the house. For me, the story really reaches a head when Alice and Ila finally go back. It’s here that the readers also hear from Hannah in a chapter told out of chronological order. So far, so good. But the wrap up after the MCs confront their fear of the house AT the house left me wondering where things were headed. Then, a new, unrelated character gets introduced and serves as narrator. I thought it was jarring to have the perspective shift so completely to this seemingly new character, even as this character clearly embodies all the evil inherent in the house. Then there is a major event that just felt like it came out of left field for me. I appreciate that not all stories have happy endings, or that happy endings get cut short. But given the intense focus on Alice and Ila as narrators, switching to an unknown person and throwing all the eggs into “evil house continues to be evil and cause harm” basket just wasn’t very satisfying for me.
Overall, I mostly enjoyed the multiple perspectives this book offers. Even though I wasn’t a fan of Ila as a character, I liked having such an intimate look at Ila’s experiences. That gave some insight into what drove her to act as she did. The evil house as an instigator of action was also well done, I thought. The two MC’s narration was occasionally broken up with narration from the house itself, explaining its own history and going on at length about concepts of where hate, fascism, and so on come from. That said, I had a hard time getting into the story and the ending really just threw me for an unenjoyable loop. I think fans of more literary works, less structured and more meaty in terms of “makes you think” material will enjoy this. Readers who enjoy unpolished characters who act and react in relatable and sometimes horrible ways will also enjoy this. Just be aware that the through-lines on this story aren’t the typical “will they/won’t they get back together” in romances or “will they/won’t they survive” in horror stories.