Is Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes the next Girl On A Train? Or Gone Girl? The pre-publication hype would certainly have you believe so and the six-figure advance would suggest that publisher HarperCollins thinks that it might be too.
I am not sure whether this is a widely known term but “grip-lit” seems to be developing a body of work all of its own. The common elements of the genre are essentially ordinary domestic settings, apparently “normal” protagonists and then, for the reader, a gradual realisation that the surface calm completely belies what lies beneath. You can, roughly, apply that formula to the two books I mentioned at the beginning of this review.
Behind Her Eyes certainly fits the mould. Louise is a single mother living in London; she has just found a new job as a secretary at a psychiatrist’s practice and loves it. The first twist in the story happens when she realises that her new boss, David Martin, is a man she had recently met in a bar, ended up snogging, and really fancied. The second twist is when she literally bumps into a woman on the school run, goes with her for a friendly coffee and comes to realise that she is David Martin’s wife, Adele.
Adele is very keen to befriend Louise. She is beautiful, elegant and comparatively affluent. Louise is a bit overweight, clumsy and financially struggling. The glamour offered by association with Adele is irresistible. But the situation is surely impossible. You can’t be someone’s best friend while having an affair with her husband, can you? Well, Louise can, although a large part of her sections of the book are devoted to “angsting” about it.
Pinborough keeps the narrative moving between Adele and Louise in alternating chapters with occasional flashbacks to the past referred to as Then. I want to give nothing away so I will say simply that these are important.
A Twist In The Tale
So what we have is the structure of a conventional love triangle. At least two of its corners, however, rapidly reveal themselves to be anything but conventional. Adele has a history of mental problems and has been in residential care. David has her taking psychiatric drugs designed to keep her stable. Or are they? Louise appears the most “normal” of the three but she is enmeshed in an abnormal situation, albeit partly of her own making. It does not take the reader long to realise that all of this is going to go badly wrong at some point.
The way in which it goes badly wrong is one I cannot explain here for fear of spoilers. What I can say is that Pinborough sets up her situation convincingly and fluently. She is an accomplished writer – albeit that young adult fiction and fantasy is her normal territory – and she moves the developing storyline on at pace. This is genuinely a page turner. It is also well-constructed and intriguing, as more is revealed about each character, narrators prove ever more unreliable and impending disaster approaches.
A Climatic Conclusion
The ending of Behind Her Eyes has already become something of a cause celebre. The publishers have taken the unusual step of creating its own hashtag, #WTFthatending, and declaring on the cover “The Most Shocking Ending You’ll Read All Year”. That declaration seems to me a double-edged sword because one result of it is that the reader spends the entire novel trying to predict ever more convoluted and unlikely endings rather than just enjoying the coming denouement.
And does it live up to its billing? Is it really shocking? Well, it’s certainly unexpected. Whether it is shocking will be down, I suspect, to the individual reader.
I found it a number of things – preposterous among them. So I have to say that for me it didn’t really work, even after I had re-read the final pages to make sure that I had fully grasped their intricacy. It called for a massive suspension of disbelief for which I was unprepared.
Nevertheless, I have no doubt whatever that a large number of readers will be gripped, entertained and satisfied. Even if this is yet another grip-lit bestseller that sets feminism back a few more years!
Behind Her Eyes
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Publisher: HarperCollins, crime fiction