13 Minutes is a new psychological thriller from Sarah Pinborough. It centres on the relationship between a group of girls in their late teens, after one of them is found in a river, and declared dead for thirteen minutes, before returning to life with no memory of how she ended up in the river.
The setting is relatively confined – a relatively small-seeming British market town, with a focus on the school that serves it. Pinborough manages to convey the sense of tolerated and tolerable education through her prose. The atmosphere of the school accords with my (admittedly slightly dusty) memories of that time of life. There’s the teacher that half the school lusts after, and the clique of popular kids whom everyone looks to for leadership – and there’s the sense of evolution, as well. The school feels like a chrysalis, a place in which children are finding their feet, and moving into adulthood.
Still, this isn’t Saved By The Bell. The environment is, to put it mildly, poisonous. The cast of teens don’t all like each other – to put it mildly. There’s a feeling that each word, each step, is being judged and dissected. That every interaction is equal parts studied performance and emotional honesty. The world that these girls inhabit is one intimately familiar to school-leavers, one where decisions have an immediacy, a sense of urgency, where even the smallest choice feels like it may have life changing consequences. Of course, sometimes it does.
It’s difficult to convey how well Pinborough has done here – but the school that her characters inhabit feels exactly right. It has everything that made schools such a joy, and such an awful trial, for everyone involved, and it seems all too real.
The main focus of the narrative is the relationship between Tasha, the girl who was found floating dead in a river, and then revived – and her old childhood friend, Becca. The former is the champion of the popular group, a mover and shaker in a school hierarchy where reputation is everything. The latter is a firm contrast – less concerned with popularity, more concerned with being herself. We get to spend a lot of time in Becca’s head, in particular, and the tone seems pitch perfect. There’s a wry warm, and a feeling of intelligence, overlaying a broad streak of insecurity. This tone is backed up in her interactions, especially with Tasha, the girl whom she was once closest to, who most wanted to impress.
Tasha is a different beast, Initially, she comes off as traumatised by her immersion in the river. There’s a sense in her interactions with Becca, and with their supporting cast of friends, that she’s not sure who she is any more. This personal uncertainty is interleaved with the broader theme of childhood overthrown, characters moving past childish things and into the harder, but perhaps less judgmental, world of adulthood.
Impressively, the text covers a lot of emotional ground. There’s love. There’s betrayal. Both felt with a kind of soaring agony, which comes through the text and punches the reader in the metaphorical gut. But there’s quieter moments too – affection to or from parents, for example, mixed with a sense of their fallibility. There’s a darker strain running through it as well; there’s a lot of jealousy in the dialogue here, and it carries the passion of youth, intermingled with the dread seriousness of adulthood – and the associated consequences.
In any event, the entire narrative is an absolutely masterful character piece. We get to see the way that individuals think about themselves and each other, and I’ve rarely been so immersed in a character and their world – and, on some occasions, horrified by both.
From a plot standpoint…well, getting into any detail might induce spoilers. The book starts with the mystery of how Tasha ended up in a river and died, though. That mystery is chased through the text, with red herrings, confusion, and even some investigative insight – and as a central pillar of the narrative, ti hangs together, keeps your interest, and also manages to keep you guessing all the way through. The whole plot is a byzantine maze of plot, counterplot, lies, illusions, and mosaics of truth – and it’s absolutely glorious to read, and very hard to put down.
Is it worth reading? Yes, absolutely. It’s got a solid, tense plot and some wonderfully drawn characters, living in a world which feels all too terribly real. Give it a try!