INSOMNIA, by Sarah Pinborough

My history with Sarah Pinborough’s novels is somewhat uneven, since I quite enjoyed the first two books I read – Murder and Mayhem – and liked 13 Minutes well enough, but was baffled, to say the least, by Behind her Eyes, which made me a little wary of her narrative themes. Now that I know I must always expect the unexpected from her novels, I feel more comfortable with whatever storytelling path she chooses to travel, and that’s why I was able to immerse myself fully into Insomnia.

Emma Averell seems to have everything working for her: a gratifying job as a divorce attorney, a stay-at-home husband who can take care of the children – a teenager girl and a younger boy; a beautiful home, a good life. But as the focus moves closer, we are able to see some cracks in this apparently perfect picture, not least her approaching 40th birthday: not so much as an indication of the passage of time, but because of her family history. When Emma’s mother turned 40 she started becoming unhinged, mostly from lack of sleep, and in the end she tried to kill Emma’s older sister Phoebe, so that she was committed to a mental hospital and the two girls were given to foster care. With that fateful birthday fast approaching, Phoebe comes back into Emma’s life by telling her that their mother hurt herself seriously and is not expected to survive long, bringing a lot of Emma’s buried past to the surface, and what’s worse, she starts to experience a debilitating form of insomnia that is resistant to any pharmacological help and that brings about worrisome fugue states that might be the indication Emma is headed in the same direction as her mother.  And so her “perfect” world starts to crumble, piece by piece, around her… 

The central theme of this story is without doubt Emma’s sudden inability to sleep, a phenomenon that manifests itself out of the blue and is at the root of the character’s slow but inexorable descent into a nightmarish experience in which everything and everyone she had counted on falls apart, leaving her alone and in doubt of her own actions, of reality itself – to the extent that as a reader I wondered more than once if there was some “gaslighting” plan in operation.  The strong pull the novel was able to exert on my imagination comes from the fact that I know how unsettling insomnia can be: of course I never experienced it to Emma’s same, dramatic extent, but I know what it’s like to be unable to fall asleep, even when you badly need the rest, and I’ve had my share of totally sleepless nights, when being awake makes you feel somehow alienated from the rest of the world.  So I was able to sympathize with Emma’s plight, up to a certain point, although after a while some of her actions and decision looked far too much “out there” to enable me to maintain that same level of empathy.

And it’s here that my familiarity with Sarah Pinborough’s style came into play, because my most recent reads taught me that her characters are often complicated and not completely likable, no matter how much one can rationalize their motives and actions: on one side, the paranoia brought on by lack of sleep and by the progressive alienation from family and friends turned Emma into this somewhat crazed person who acted in unpredictable and often senseless ways; on the other, seeing how her immediate family seemed more concerned with the results of her problems, rather than with the causes, helped me feel more sensitive to her plight. The husband’s mid-life crisis, the teenage daughter’s rebelliousness and the boy’s behavioral problems, piled on top of Emma’s sleeplessness and fear of losing her mind, create such an impending sense of doom, such a claustrophobic environment that I literally devoured the novel in search of the solution to the mystery.

Speaking of which, be prepared because it’s a somewhat weird one: with this author you have to accept the intrusion of the uncanny into the mundane; if that acceptance works, so does the story – I’ve learned this lesson with Behind Her Eyes (and it took me a little while, and a revisitation of the story through its televised version, before I accepted that reveal) and that’s helped me here, together with the fact that the novel is conceived in such a way that most everyone in Emma’s life becomes a suspect sooner or later, leading you through a series of proverbial red herrings that turn this already engrossing enigma into quite the page-turner.  Discovering that your assumptions were wrong is indeed a great part of the fun in reading Insomnia.

And I certainly had fun with this book….

My Rating:


23 thoughts on “INSOMNIA, by Sarah Pinborough

  1. I haven’t read any of Pinborough’s books, though I’ve seen her in action at a number of cons and she’s smart, funny and beautiful with sufficient personal charisma to light up a stadium. I’m intrigued to note that her characters are often complicated and not always likeable… Thank you for an engrossing and thoughtful review.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Let me take a stab at solving the mystery:
    The husband’s midlife crisis has turned him to devil worship. He sacrificed the daughter, who has been replaced by a changeling. The daughter is poisoning the rice krispies to kill the mom but is accidentally poisoning the brother instead, hence his behavioral issues.
    The mom wakes up, only to realize it was all a dream. Only to realize her name is Bob n aliens are messing with his head.

    Bam! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Just thinking about insomnia stresses me out, lol. But this sounds like a trip! I have only read Behind Her Eyes and I’d love to try another of her books. Lovely review😁

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The most important thing is that you had fun! And this was a great review to read! This book is not my cup of tea, there are a lot of things in there that for me are just big nope, but I am glad you had a good time with it! (and for once my TBR and my wallet are safe!! 😉)

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  5. I enjoyed this one so much, but have to agree with you there that it was a weird one. After Behind Her Eyes though, I’ve learned to just brace myself for anything that might happen with her books lol! She’s so great with ambiguous characters and unreliable narrators though, gotta love it!

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  6. Ahh, I am strangely biased when it comes to this author. I so enjoy her work and this was no exception. I love that she takes a seemingly mundane situation and then manages to subtly fuse it with fantasy elements. I found this moody and atmospheric as well as frustrating at times – I truly wanted to shake ‘Bob’ on occasion.
    Lovely, well balanced review.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 2 people

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