Only a short time ago, while reviewing Sarah Pinborough’s 13 Minutes, I wrote that previous experience had taught me to expect only the best from this author, but my enthusiasm suffered a nasty blow with Behind Her Eyes, not enough to prevent me from reading her other works of course, yet enough to make me a little wary before plunging straight into another one of her novels. But let’s proceed with order…
Behind Her Eyes starts out as a psychological thriller, and one that shortly becomes a quite compulsive read: the story is told through the alternating P.O.V.s of Adele and Louise. The former is the fragile wife of psychiatrist David, a man prone to mood swings that seem to hint at an irritable, maybe violent nature; it’s clear from the start that there is something wrong in their marriage, although Adele does her best to present a perfect front to the outside world, and even at home she goes out of her way to please her husband and offer him the most impeccable kind of home life.
Louise is instead recently divorced from her cheating husband and is raising alone their 6 years old son Adam: battling with loneliness and the existential problems of a single mother, not to mention the night terrors and sleepwalking episodes that occur practically every night, Louise finds a moment’s joy in the encounter with a handsome stranger in a bar, and the two of them share a kiss. Only the next morning, though, the woman discovers to her horror that the man is David, her new boss in the medical clinic where she works as a secretary.
To compound Louise’s confusion and dread, she literally bumps into Adele, David’s wife, and the two women move from a spur-or-the-moment chat over coffee to a friendship that is fraught with guilt and doubts on Louise’s side, because despite their best intentions she and David have meanwhile become lovers, and she’s quite taken with him, although the sides of his personality that she’s inferring from what Adele tries to gloss over make her think he might be a harsh control freak who terrorizes his submissive wife.
From here on the story becomes quite tangled as the narrative points of view are revealed as unreliable, one of them being shown as having an unfathomable agenda: it’s thanks to Pinborough’s writing skills that this surprise did not rob me of the thrill of discovery, because my need to understand this character’s true goal was what drove me to keep turning the pages, as the often contradictory clues piled up and seemed to move in a certain direction, only to defy my expectations time and again.
And those same skills also kept me interested in the characters’ journey although I found all of them to be quite unlikable, especially Louise: she collects bad choices as other people collect shells on the beach, and she seems unable to learn from her mistakes. Not only that, but she is a walking mass of contradictions: she knows that her affair with David is a huge mistake, not only because he’s a married man, but because she’s friends with his wife, and yet every time she finds him at her door she cannot find the strength to send him away. And what about her alleged maternal feelings for her son? She seems to have built her life around him, but once he’s away on vacation with his father (a vacation she was at first strongly opposed to), she feels free to enjoy her illicit fling and hardly seems to reserve a though for her child except for the moments when he phones her. And let’s not go over her massive intake of wine at the slightest drop of a hat…
Still, I could not tear myself away from the story because the author had put me under her spell, and I wanted, I needed to see where all this buildup was headed: I am not going to give any details here, because to do so would mean to offer a massive spoiler, but suffice it to say that once the fantastical element of lucid dreaming was introduced, changing the course of what had until that moment been a “simple” psychological thriller, the narrative took a whole new direction and finally moved toward the massive twist at the end, one that required the recovery of my jaw from the floor where it had fallen. Because it would have been impossible to foresee it, not until the very last second.
If the story had ended at that point, it would have been perfect – an incredible buildup leading the readers through a maze of baffles and dead ends concocted to confuse them so that they could not guess what was the author’s true intention. But unfortunately the novel did not stop at that first twist, that unpredictable revelation – no, there was a second one, and that ruined the overall effect of the story for me, because in my opinion it was an overkill: just imagine being in a fancy restaurant, and the chef comes at your table with a special dessert that he presents with a lot of flourish and a few moves not unlike those of a stage magician. Once he has your full attention he sets that dessert on fire and you marvel at the spectacle and enjoy the end result – it should end there and then but no, because the chef cuts the dessert in half and from it a flock of birds takes flight. Makes no sense, does it? That’s exactly how I felt after that second, totally farfetched revelation.
Up until that moment I was more than willing to accept the whole chain of events that led to it, including some of the more improbable ones, but the need to overdo the… shock factor, for want of a better word, was what lost me in the end, since I am a firm believer of the philosophy of “less is more“, and that second surprise ruined the overall effect for me. Pity…