Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Behind Her Eyes - Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes is a standalone novel from Sarah Pinborough, whose cracking “13 Minutes” we reviewed and said rather nice things about last year. It’s a well honed psychological thriller – amongst other things.

This is, at heart, a novel about people – in particular about the loves and hatreds, and about the secrets and lies which bind people together as thoroughly, or even more so, than genuine affection. At the same time, the narrative examines the way those links are shaped by, and impact upon, the people that create them.

The core focus of the text is on the series of relationships between Louise, a single mother, struggling through her day job as an assistant at a medical practice, David, the newest doctor in that practice – and Adele, David’s wife. Louise, crucially, is given to us as a point of view character, and we share in the mundane and familiar aspects of her life – a love for her son, an effort to put on a good front before her ex-husband, a desire to be both more and less than she is. Louise is familiar, or at least comfortable to walk the narrative alongside. To be sure, she has character flaws – a tendency to impulsiveness, for example – but overall, she’s an intelligent woman, shaped by circumstances to have what feels in some ways a very claustrophobic life, stuck in a rut after a divorce, caring for her son between holidays, having the odd glass of wine after dinner, and never quite able to reach out for something more.

David, the new doctor, is the one of the triad we see least – his motivations and goals cloaked from the reader. He’s a man capable of showing both infernal coolness, and great affection. It seems like there’s something haunting the man, a past not quite spoken of. He’s the bridge between Louise and Adele, his wife – and the mystery of what ties him to Adele, what strange rites bind them together, is at the crux of the mystery. David is the third party, seen from the vantage of the others, but perhaps not wholly understood. By turns he feels humane, warm and affectionate – and a distant force of nature, a force of pent up rage and potential violence. It’s to Pinborough’s credit that she makes both sides of the man feel as plausible, as likely, as the other.

The third of the triad is Adele, David’s wife, who befriends Louise. Her segments are both revealing and obfuscated, if that’s possible. Adele is sharp eyed and sharp minded, an individual with a laser like focus, and a clear affection for her husband. That said, she’s also somewhere between terrified and damned – watching her mind race, picking up threads that tie to Louise and David, linking them together and trying to shift them to her own needs. Adele is clearly damaged, dangerous, or both but damaged by whom, or dangerous to whom is another matter.

The setting feels, perhaps intentionally, claustrophobic – and largely settled around urban environs. Still, the atmosphere is sinister, if we’re not entirely sure why. There’s scenes in Louise’s cramped, slightly decrepit flat. Here’s the scent of genteel poverty, of old furniture and luxuries put off in the name of necessity – a feeling of work and honesty, laced with regrets and perhaps, just perhaps a tinge of hope. By contrast, Adele and David have a larger home, filled with unspoken accusations and a roiling tension sat under the pleasant-seeming surface. Whatever it is that keeps them together, or has driven them apart, sits over their interactions, and their home, like an oil slick on boiling water.

The plot – well, there’s surprises in every word. If we come to the story knowing nothing, then the gradual reveals on all sides, the gentle unmasking of hard truth, and the potential for appalling consequences – are all guaranteed to leave us a little wiser when we walk away from the book. It’s a slow burner, this one, but the build up is deliciously clever, each disclosure cloaking even further mysteries – leaving the reader crouched over the text in anticipation, trying to work out where the next twist is going to take us.

This is definitely worth picking up, if you’re in the mood for an incredibly well realised psychological thriller, with the odd element suggesting all may not be quite as it appears. I tore through it quickly, and I can say that it delivers on its early promise – each turn of phrase an emotional punch to the gut, each page a revelation.

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