This is not a review. Maybe. This is not a critique. Probably. This contains spoilers. (Lots of spoilers!) This is a reflection on how Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough made me feel as a reader. I’m not a fan of a thriller. Not that I’m read (m)any. Straight thrillers that is. Not involving the future or horror or supernatural, anyway. I wasn’t going to read this book, because of my prejudices; but I’m a fan of Pinborough’s work (although not everything she writes is of interest) and there was a buzz around that #WTFthatending on Twitter. So I thought I’d give it bash.
After about 80 or so pages I thought I was wasting my time.
This is the story of Louise, David and Adele. And Rob. Very ordinary sounding people. The kind you might meet. Louise is a single mother. Her ex ran off and is having a kid with another woman. She is bringing up her son on a part-time wage. David and Adele are a married couple. She’s a lady who lunches, and does the gym. He’s a head doctor. Louise works for him at the clinic. Rob is Adele’s old friend from more troubled times. All very normal. All very ‘not my cup of tea at all’. And how to make an interesting thriller out of all this? Is it going to be about just relationships?
Obviously, not all is what it seems. Louise and David met in a bar before David joined the clinic where Louise works. They’re having a thing. Adele knows about it. She had a troubled childhood, from which David saved her. She spent time in a clinic where she became best friends with Rob. Rob who went missing. David is very unhappy in his marriage. Louise doesn’t have many friends and is a little overweight, and befriends Adele. OK, so some elements of a thriller there.
I wouldn’t say Behind Her Eyes typifies my problem with thrillers (and mysteries and crime novels), but it shines a light on them. Which makes me glow as a hypocrite. I love metafiction. I enjoy the concept of the author and the book playing games with the reader. I love it when the fourth wall breaks. When the characters are aware that they are fiction. All these elements hold true with thrillers of this type, but the pretence of being ‘real’ remains. My spot-lit issue. In Behind Her Eyes the story is told mostly from the first-person perspective of both Adele and Louise, alternating chapters. Occasionally, a chapter called ‘Then’ comes in, which is a third-person view of Adele’s old relationship with Rob. If this was metafiction, Adele and Louise would be aware that they are fiction. In this, they are not, but they still talk to the reader. But who are they really talking to? This isn’t epistolary fiction. So. They play games with the narrative, only revealing small clues about what they know, or in Adele’s case, her manipulation of the characters. Especially in the last paragraph or sentence of a chapter. Which is all fine, by the way. Just not a style I’m comfortable with.
And yet. And yet I fully engaged with their stories, by Chapter 18. By this point Adele (therefore Pinborough) was being more open with the reader that she was indeed playing both Louise, and us. It is interesting, following an author on social media. You get the occasional glimpse into their life. And then when you’re reading their book, you wonder…I’ve seen that Pinborough enjoys a glass of wine. As does Louise here. There is more reflection on social media and fiction required… Another time. Anyway. Pinborough really engaged me with her characters. Her writing is fluid and lacks complication or pretention. Very readable. But it is deliberatively manipulative. I’m not sure I like that, outside the realms of metafiction.
It was Chapter 18 when hints of supernatural are dropped in the story. My pique rose. Not such a straight thriller after all. I now couldn’t wait to keep reading this story. I was being sucked in by the breadcrumb trail. Is this because I knew it was about supernatural or because of the story? After all, if it wasn’t supernatural, I might not have been interested in the marital and psychological games being played out. Throughout, Pinborough drops hints and clues, which at the time, seem incidental or simply setting up characters. Early on, Adele insists in seeing Louise’s little flat. Does she think she’s better than Louise and wants to prove it? Later, it is revealed that for the supernatural elements to work, the dreamer must be able to picture the place that they want to visit. Nicely done.
So to the #WTFthatending of Behind Her Eyes. Can a whole book be a deliberate ploy to sell an ending. Is it a cop out? I know a lot of people were bummed out by the film version of The Prestige. They felt like they’d been played. When the end came, here, I’d already sort of got, and it made a whole lot of sense. Almost like the scene at the end of The Sixth Sense when all the clues are laid out for Bruce Willis’ Malcome Crowe, I could picture all the moments that led to the reveal. I liked it. But then the coda. Less obvious, and much less sign-posted. It felt almost tacked-on. Not really necessary. The conclusion of Louise’s story was enough of pleasing #WTFthatending for me.
Thrilling, no? Manipulative, yes. Is that a good thing? I felt I’d been played a little, from the start. Maybe if I read it again, I’d see more evidence of the coda being set up. I remember the feelings Rob had around David when they first met, but as this was the third-person perspective, it didn’t read as a clue.
I can’t decide if I loved this book. Probably not. Just liked. Not as much as I’d loved Pinborough’s The Death House. I think had Behind Her Eyes ended without the coda, that would have been enough and I would have enjoyed it more. I’m sure others will love it. After all, it is so very well written; engaging and interesting and yes, a page-turner. It isn’t enough to make me want to pick up another thriller, but I was very happy that it became a supernatural story. Otherwise I doubt I’d have cared. The dreaming elements gave the story more heft for me. Although Louise and David were empathic characters of course. I suppose I don’t like being played. If someone – the author – is messing with me as a reader, I prefer the characters to let me know they’re in on the game. But that’s just me. Enjoy Behind Her Eyes; if nothing else, if you take away my prejudices, it’s a damn fine read.
I read an eARC for Behind Her Eyes kindly supplied by Net Galley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Update: Several hours after finishing reading Behind Her Eyes it occurred to me that this is a better book than I give it credit for, as it has made me think about the nature of fiction and what it means to me. So that’s a good thing and important too. Books should make you think and so Pinborough has achieved a vital service to me, and I hope to others too.