book: Behind Her Eyes (2017) by Sarah Pinborough


Sometimes it’s hard to understand the minds of fiction publishers. These past few years, every novel that could be deemed even vaguely thrillerish, from The Wind in the Willowsto The Kama Sutra, has seemed to bear the promise “The Next Gone Girl!!!” or “The Next Girl on the Train!!!” and yet, when along comes a novel that really could warrant the claim of “The Next Gone Girl!!!” or “The Next Girl on the Train!!!”, there’s no such appellation. I checked the front and back covers and flaps in growing incredulity, but nada.

Behind Her Eyes is not so much a psychological thriller as a parapsychological thriller, although we’re well on toward the end before the distinction becomes apparent. One of its two primary first-person narrators (there are some flashback sections in third-person) is unreliable, although just how unreliable doesn’t become apparent until the very last few pages.

The plot in (very) brief. Single-mother secretary/receptionist Louise discovers to her horror that the man she snogged with in a bar the other night is the new boss of the psychiatric clinic where she works, David. Then, by chance, she runs into David’s wife, Adele, in the street, and the two women become friends — a relationship that Adele is keen Louise hide from David. Matters get more complicated when David and Louise become lovers . . .

The novel’s really quite addictive; I read it over just a couple of working days, not just because Pinborough is a first-rate prose stylist but because I was eager to find out what happened next. That eagerness abated a bit, I have to confess, as the realization grew in me that the plot was becoming more and more reliant on parapsychology. I loved the stuff on the recognized psychological phenomenon of lucid dreaming; began to sigh wistfully from time to time when we graduated from lucid dreaming to OOBEs/astral projection. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with parapsychological thrillers, you understand; it’s just that it seems to me something of a copout when the extrasensory is invoked to make sense of a plot that was working very well without it.

I’m no great fan of the “would have been better as a short story/novella” school of criticism but it did start to cross my mind as I romped through Behind Her Eyes that I’d have been very interested to read the hypothetical short story/novella devised from the same elements. In that sense you might suggest that much of the wordage could have been peeled away without deleterious effect. That said, I was so much enjoying the actual process of reading — Pinborough’s well crafted prose, her sense of pacing and timing, etc. — that I was perfectly happy I was tackling the, so to speak, longer version.

The famous — or notorious — denouement came as something of a surprise, although it was one of those “Duh! I shoulda thought of that possibility!” surprises, and there were a couple of subtle clues to it quite skillfully hidden earlier in the text.

As noted, I did have my reservations about the novel, particularly in terms of its reliance on the supernatural; but overall I admired it greatly.

4 thoughts on “book: Behind Her Eyes (2017) by Sarah Pinborough

  1. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read any of Pinborough’s works yet, although she’s been on my to-read list for years. I think I’ll start with this one.

    • I read one of her early books, but so many years ago that I can no longer remember anything about it, not even the title! All I recall is that, as with this one, I enjoyed it but with some minor reservations. I hope you like Behind Her Eyes when you get to it.

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