Vicky Newham


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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – a review

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Friendly single mother, Louise, meets David in a bar. Flirtation becomes a kiss, but it ends there. The next day, at work, Louise meets her new boss and gets a glimpse of his beautiful wife, Adele. Guess what? To Louise’s embarrassment, he’s the man from the bar. Then when Louise bumps into Adele on the street, they go for coffee together and start up a confiding friendship. It seems that it’s fresh starts all round. But while David says the kiss was a mistake, he cannot keep his eyes off Louise, and a love triangle develops.

The story is told from the point of view of Louise and Adele, and the reader quickly wonders which of the two is telling the truth, and whether Adele and David’s marriage is as perfect as it seems. With unreliable narrators, and a combustive domestic situation, it’s the perfect set-up for a twisty psychological thriller. But it’s also where Sarah Pinborough shakes things up.

What I adored about this book is the way the author deals with the subtle nuances of the inter-relationships, and brings them to life. For me – and it stands out in her YA novels too – Sarah Pinborough excels at writing relationships, and she brings an emotional intelligence to the many forms of communication which take place between people. She shows – in an often humorous, often poignant way – how easy it is to get drawn into a mutual obsession which escalates. And, with modern technology at everyone’s disposal, obsessions can be stoked and satisfied from the comfort of the sofa. Louise and Adele have very different lives, yet neither is happy.  The reader is privy to their reflections for all their honesty, neurosis and desperation. But what their reflections also show is how different people often are from the image they portray; how cruel and manipulative some people can be; how self-deception can eat away at their hopes and dreams.

Behind Her Eyes drips with menace from the first page, and that atmosphere continues throughout the novel. Most of the narrative is written in the present tense. It’s immediate and claustrophobic. It’s intimate and confessional. And it’s beautifully written.

What I admire about Sarah Pinborough is that with each novel she pushes her writing that bit further and is continually challenging genre boundaries. The #WTFthatending will certainly get people reading the book. And so it should. But in amongst the disturbing themes and dysfunctional characters, I also hope that people enjoy the subtle aspects of the book. After all, we know we can’t always trust others, but can we trust ourselves?

 

Vicky Newham ©2017


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The Death House by Sarah Pinborough – a review

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If there is a book which demonstrates how redundant genre classifications can be, it is The Death House. It has elements of several genres and is set in the future. However, at its most essential it is a story about how Toby, and a group of children of various ages, respond to being taken away from their homes in a van to an institution. This happens because they have something in their blood tests which makes them ‘defective’, and which means that sooner or later they will get sick and die. It is a novel about the various emotions that the children experience, and how they cope with the situation they find themselves in. And this is what makes the book delightful: it shows, beautifully, how differently each of them responds to the same situation. Toby is an emotional and sensitive boy, also proud and scared and angry. When Clara arrives, the bond they develop, and her response to her prognosis, have a profound effect on him. Their situation – and that of all the children in the Death House – is extremely sad but the comfort that Clara and Toby find in each other is very moving. There are other touching loyalties (which I don’t want to spoil for you).

There were so many ways in which the author could have taken this story. What I admire about Sarah Pinborough – and I’ve seen it with some of her other books – is that she is clear about what she wants to write about and how she wants to do it. She is prepared to take risks and this takes courage. It also requires an understanding of what makes a good story.

I enjoyed the scenes in the dorms with the boys bantering and jockeying for position. Toby’s fellow ‘inmates’ are characterised well, distinct and real. I loved how Clara arrives on the scene and shakes everything up, apparently confident but with her own vulnerabilities.  While they wait for their symptoms to develop, and for the lift to come in the middle of the night to take them to the sanatorium, the emotions of the children are continually changing. This goes for their friendships and the group dynamics. If any one of the children exemplifies the words of the strapline, ‘Everyone dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts’, it is Clara. But it could equally well apply to any of the inmates, as this is the dilemma they are faced with having received their prognoses. Perhaps it applies to the reader as well. If life is so impermanent, how are we to live our lives?

I was desperate to know how the story ends. As with most good stories, there were many possibilities and I wasn’t disappointed. Against the backdrop of disease and dystopia, the innocence and optimism of the feelings between Toby and Clara are a real delight. Highly recommended.

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Vicky Newham © 2015