British author Sarah Pinborough has published more than twenty novels – ranging from YA fantasy to TV tie-ins to horror – but her ‘breakout’ books (a borderline-depressing publishing term that refers to when a ‘mid-list’ writer makes it big) are recent developments. 13 Minutes, a young adult thriller, was published in 2016; her psychological thriller Behind Her Eyes featured the most-discussed twist ending of 2017. Cross Her Heart, her latest offering, pulls in threads of both of these, with its focus on ‘nice’ suburban ladies and the dysfunctional ways in which adolescent girls often interact.
In an era where domestic suspense rules the charts, it’s tempting to view Pinborough’s latest book as a typical example of the genre. An early chapter sees a male character think, “She has no right to do this to him. Not after everything they’ve been through. He will destroy her for it.” Oh dear. We know where this is going, don’t we? Similarly, the main character, Lisa, reflects: “The fear never truly leaves me. I’ve had lulls where I can almost let go of the past, but then a random moment like this triggers a panic and I realise it will always be there, like hot tar glued to the lining of my stomach. And recently I’ve had this feeling, an unsettled disquiet, as if there’s something off-kilter I should see but don’t.”
Aha! She’s going to be stalked by her ex. It’ll be something to do with her self-proclaimed “ugly duckling” daughter too, we’re sure, because she’s getting her own chapters, and maybe that lady at work is going to be involved. But we’re pretty confident we know what we’re getting, especially if we read a lot of these kinds of books. We know how to spot the clues. “Maybe it’s nothing,” Lisa thinks. “Maybe I am just going mad. Maybe I broke the photo. Maybe it’s me who’s broken.” Well, honey, if you’re already thinking that, then we’re pretty sure it’s not just you. You’ll be redeemed in the end, you’ll see. We’ve seen this story before.
Except we haven’t, because Sarah Pinborough likes her twists and turns, and at regular intervals everything we think we know about Lisa’s life is thrown up in the air. It’s carefully done – we are misled, but always artfully – and unlike (the admittedly page-turner-tastic) Behind Her Eyes, the swerves and reveals are very much linked to human levels of evilness rather than anything supernatural.
“They say women are the softer sex. The more emotional. Which fool decided that? A man in love is weakness personified. A man in love will tell you anything. Share anything. Give you everything.” Without giving too much away about the plot, it’s fair to say that this is a novel about the evil that women do rather than the horrors of domestic violence writ large, even though the latter does play a part.
This is a novel about cruelty and how it impacts on people, about female friendships both compassionate and toxic, about mothers and daughters and the inevitable tension between the two. The breezy prose belies the serious subject matter – Pinborough lures you into thinking this is a ‘light read’ and then slowly, elegantly, turns up the heat. By the end of it, your brain will feel fried – in the best possible way.