The most popular girl at school, sixteen year old Natasha Howland is found drowned in the river running through the woods near her home by a young music producer who happens to be walking his dog early one morning. Tash is eventually revived, but estimated to have been ‘dead’ for thirteen minutes, a period of time from which she remembers nothing, once she wakes up in the hospital. Not just that, but she’s also has no memory of how she ended up in the river or of any of the events that lead up to her being in the woods at all. The police are investigating the case and a psychologist is working to make sure Tash has emerged from the trauma unscathed. Tash herself wants to know what happened to her, and as things unravel, the situation reveals itself to be more complicated and disturbing than any one could have guessed in Sarah Pinborough’s new thriller, 13 Minutes.
Tash is certain something is wrong between her and her two closest friends, Jenny and Haley, both of whom seem sympathetic to her ordeal but are also acting a little strangely towards her, as if they are hiding something from her. Determined to work out what happened and if her best friends were involved in her drowning, Tasha turns to Bex, someone she was once close friends with but had then removed from her tiny clique as the girls grew up and didn’t all fit the same mould. Bex isn’t like Tasha or Jenny and Haley—she isn’t a plastic ‘Barbie’, as Tasha refers to her own gang as. Bex doesn’t try to fit into the mould, but try as she might, she isn’t able to walk away from Tash either—they’ve had too many years of close friendship in their past for Bex to not support her now. Bex knows that it is partly her need for acceptance into the cool clique that is what is driving her towards Tash again—‘I would have let them be bitches to me forever if I could have stayed in the circle. I was such a loser.’ It isn’t just the other girls who are hard on Bex; she’s just as hard on herself. The relationships between the girls are fraught with unspoken secrets and sudden shifts of power as they tiptoe around Tasha’s attempts to investigate what happened to her. When they do confront each other, ‘everything [is] still, the five girls locked in a silent showdown, emotional wounds leaking into the air and making it heavy.’
Tash and Bex frequently played chess against each other when they were younger, and pick up their earlier habit of slow moving games when Tash attempts to rekindle their friendship and involve Bex in her own personal investigation. Eventually, this is revealed to be a not-particularly subtle metaphor for their relationship, but it’s one that works well, especially since the reader never really has all the information needed to guess at either girls’ next move. And therein lies the thrill—there are multiple deftly plotted slow reveals in 13 Minutes, each paving the way for a sly, exciting denouement.
13 Minutes is very much a YA crime thriller, though it does suggest some speculative elements—the river Tash drowns in could be haunted, Tash keeps noticing the number thirteen everywhere she goes, the girls are auditioning for the school play Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with its story of a witch hunt in small town America mirroring some of the actions the teens take against each other. But the possible speculative elements are very much in the background, though there is a slow, steady feeling of impending dread present throughout the book. This is partly due to the multiple narratives employed by Pinborough to present an almost fragmented story—the reader, too, is very much on a need-to-know basis. Like Bex, we are uncertain of what the complete truth really is and are piecing together elements from the information disclosed by the multiple POVs—Bex’ and Tash’s first person perspective each, the point of view of James, the man who finds Tash in the river, Tash’s ‘personal’ diary, reports from the psychologist working on the case, police investigation notes, and texts between Jenny and Haley all provide piecemeal information that helps build suspense, while keeping the story rolling along at a steady clip.
Teen girls can be frightening. The mob mentality of teenagers in high schools, their immediate judgments of each other, their callous treatment of those who don’t blend in can be horrific. Pinborough knows that. Some of the things that happen between teenagers just can’t be made up.
Beauty and brutality and immense intensity of feelings abound, especially between young women—these are relationships that can be incredibly supportive, but these young women can just as easily tear each other apart viciously. Pinborough does not shy away from the disturbing, and each of her reveals in this carefully plotted novel is increasingly worrying, from the situations that motivate the main characters, to the actions they feel are justified, to the manipulation they are capable of. The burden of popularity too, is examined, with it’s ability to affect a person’s character: ‘being us at school isn’t always easy’, says Tash, ‘I keep reading things in the papers and stuff about me and how popular we are, but popular is weird. It’s got a serrated edge, if you know what I mean?’
13 Minutes is perhaps a little reminiscent of Heathers or Jawbreaker in its examination of power dynamics between young women. It is a very contemporary, unflinching look at teenage female friendships and how the failure or decay of one is often more traumatic than that of a romantic relationship, as traumatic as a physical accident may be. 13 Minutes is filled with tense, toxic friendships, where the idea of safety in numbers is what keeps the young women together for a while; their codependency great, even though no one benefits positively from the relationship at all. But what happens when one of that number no longer wants to play along? What happens when you each have secrets to take to the grave but one of you refuses to? 13 Minutes examines self-indulgent, sinister and manipulative little world of teenage girls, their desires, desperation and dreams.
13 Minutes is available now in the UK from Gollancz.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.