“Whatever you do, don’t give away that ending,” demands the marketing materials attached to review copies of Sarah Pinborough’s new book. And I won’t—I wouldn’t have even in lieu of the publisher’s playful plea—but it won’t be easy, because the best thing about Behind Her Eyes is that surprise.
A work of fiction twined around a twist that is, shall we say, entangled with something supernatural, Behind Her Eyes is likely to elicit a few screams of “Don’t cross the streams!” And understandably so, I suppose. Early on, it gives every impression of being a harmless bit of grip-lit, and if you haven’t read any Pinborough in the past, you’d be right to be wrong-footed by the surprisingly speculative turn her latest tale takes. That said, this—this willingness to futz with the formula of both genres—was precisely what made it such a satisfying read for me.
Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl before it, Behind Her Eyes is a book that you don’t so much read as ride. It’s a little slow for a rollercoaster, though. The first act, in fact, is all superficial setup. We meet Louise, a thirtysomething who loves her little boy more than life itself; a lovely lady, but oh so lonely. As she says to her much more settled best friend, “Being a single mum in London eking out a living as a psychiatrist’s part-time secretary doesn’t exactly give me a huge number of opportunities to throw caution to the wind and go out every night in the hope of meeting anyone, let alone ‘Mr Right.'” But then she does. She meets him, in a bar after a few beers, and makes out with him. His name is David, and—damn it all!—he’s married.
Louise doesn’t want to be a home-breaker, not least because her own ex-husband cheated on her with another woman, so she calls time on their potential affair. And it would have ended there—it would have, she’s sure—if David, as she discovers the next day, didn’t happen to be her new boss.
To be clear, he doesn’t use his power to pursue her. He’s as uncomfortable about this coincidence as she is. But simply being in his proximity is a daily temptation that Louise can’t find it in herself to resist. His eventual illicit visits make her happy, and given how hard she’s worked, she deserves some happiness, doesn’t she?
That doesn’t stop her from feeling like a terrible person, however. Still more so when David’s wife Adele befriends her. Adele appears to be isolated and introverted; not a little lost in London, and hungry for company. She has, it transpires, a difficult relationship with David, and a past shrouded in deepest secrecy:
I’m already a bit in love with Adele in a strange way; she’s so beautiful and tragic and fascinating and kind to me. And then there’s David; a dark mystery. He’s gentle and passionate in bed, but never talks about his marriage, which I know is toxic on some level. I know I should give one of them up, but I can’t bring myself to. I feel as though I’m woven around both of them and they’ve woven into me. The more I fall for David, the more fascinated I become with Adele. It’s a vicious circle.
Vicious is exactly what it is…. but not in the way Louise believes. Adele, you see, is not what she seems. “I’m only the pretty puppet,” she purrs at one point. “The tragic wife who needs looking after.” But this maudlin mannequin has a plan. Adele is all too aware of her husband’s affair, of the love triangle involving she and he and the easily-pleased Louise, and she’s playing a game: a high-stakes game in which the aim is to win back her unhappy husband’s heart.
That’s all I can in good conscience tell you about Behind Her Eyes, because there are two twists, in truth, and the first isn’t far off. But rest assured that it turns this text into something else. Something markedly more interesting than either the grip-lit of its underpinnings or the dark fantasies Pinborough has purveyed in the past. Something more like A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 than the Fatal Attraction fan fiction of the first third. And that’s all I say about that.
Well that, and this:
The past is as ephemeral as the future—it’s all perspective and smoke and mirrors. You can’t pin it down, can you? Let’s say two people experience exactly the same thing—ask them to recount the event later and, although their versions might be similar, there will always be differences. The truth is different to different people.
On the basis of Behind Her Eyes, Pinborough doesn’t exhibit the wicked wit of Gillian Flynn, or Paula Hawkins’ incredible control over her characters. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the story feels forced, what with all the withholding it is a little conspicuous—a dubious look only exacerbated by the author’s frequent and in-your-face the allusions to The Truth.
Behind Her Eyes isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is; its central perspectives are initially rather rote; its beginning is at bottom boring—and that’s quite the laundry list of issues. But they’re issues Pinborough saves face by putting in their place later, when the song and dance of the secrets at the dark heart of this narrative is done.
Would that I could talk more openly about those, but to do so would deny you the undeniable delight of discovery, and that’s what Behind Her Eyes is about, at bottom: shocking your comfy cotton socks off. And it does that, dear reader. It does that as well as any novel I remember. It does that, and then it does it again.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.