Sarah Pinborough's latest novel explores the dark side of women in suburbia

The sleight-of-hand author’s new offering cements her reputation as one of the country’s top writers of female-led thrillers. Just don’t ask what it’s about, says David Barnett

David Barnett
Thursday 03 May 2018 17:13 BST
‘You always have to put the clues in there, you want people to get to the end and say, I should have got that, but for them to feel satisfied that they didn’t’
‘You always have to put the clues in there, you want people to get to the end and say, I should have got that, but for them to feel satisfied that they didn’t’

Sarah Pinborough does not make it easy for people to talk about her books. Her last novel, Behind Her Eyes, was released in 2017 with an exhortation from publishers Harper Collins to not give away the big finale. They ramped things up with the hashtag #WTFthatending. The pressure was on.

Not since Alfred Hitchcock pleaded with cinema audiences to not tell friends what happened in Psycho was there such an air of expectation about a thriller. Fortunately, Pinborough delivered with a climax that arrived so far out of left field that you’d have to have a rabbit-like vision field of almost 360 degrees to see it coming. But it was satisfying and made sense, and was enough of a triumph to propel Behind Her Eyes to the top of the Sunday Times Bestseller list and hit the New York Times list as well.

The ending was unexpected and had you flicking back through the book to pick up again on the seeds she’d sown from almost the first page.

“You can never cheat the reader,” says Pinborough. “You always have to put the clues in there, you want people to get to the end and say, ‘I should have got that’, but for them to feel satisfied that they didn’t. I like the idea of books being sleight of hand. Those are the sort of books I like reading myself.”

Behind Her Eyes was written from the dual perspectives of Adele, the fragile, suspicious wife of handsome psychologist David, and Louise, David’s new receptionist who becomes embroiled in their lives. Switching points of view with each chapter, we come to know each woman but also come to realise that there are things they aren’t telling us.

That narrative device is one of Pinborough’s particular strengths – to be able to put us comfortably in the heads of her main characters but to keep some areas locked away… often so skilfully that we don’t even notice the no-go areas in the personalities of the protagonists we feel we are becoming intimate with. And it’s a trick she’s repeated for her next novel, Cross Her Heart, published this month.

Before the gossip columnists sharpen their quills, the man in Pinborough’s life was Ted, her dog 

But whereas Behind Her Eyes had two perspectives, Cross Her Heart has three. We are introduced to Lisa, Ava and Marilyn. Somebody is not telling us the whole truth about themselves. But which one is it?

The first third of the book is an almost fun guessing game as to who we should and shouldn’t fully trust. Lisa is the single mother who, we glean, has an abusive relationship in her past. She’s also haunted by the death of a child, which predates the birth of her now-teenage daughter Ava.

Ava is doing the usual teenage things; hanging out with mates, getting drunk, considering ill-advised sexual encounters. But there’s more than pimply Courtney and his wandering hands to consider. Ava is encouraging an online conversation with a mysterious figure who is keen to fix up a real-life meeting.

Meanwhile Marilyn, Lisa’s work colleague, appears to have it all. But her seemingly perfect husband is not quite what he seems, and how will what goes on behind closed doors affect her own behaviour and relationship with her best friend?

Pinborough’s books are following the best-seller-to-big-screen path trodden by ‘Gone Girl’ (above) and ‘The Girl on the Train’

And, pretty much, that’s about as much as I can with a clear conscience relate of the plot to Cross Your Heart. The first act lays the groundwork, introduces us to the characters, and the bus bounces along at a satisfying pace. But then Pinborough does the thriller-writer equivalent of letting Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock get on at the next stop, puts her foot down, and throws more twists and turns into the road than Switzerland’s Grimsel Pass. Once the first reveal hits you in the face, you’ll be lucky if you can put the book down to go to bed… and if you can get to sleep when you do.

Cross Her Heart is Pinborough’s 22nd novel, including the Matter of Blood trilogy she wrote under the pseudonym Sarah Silverwood, and a clutch of original novels written for the Doctor Who-spinoff brand Torchwood. Her career has been a varied one; she began writing out-and-out horror novels, with titles such as Breeding Ground and The Hidden, she’s written extremely saucy revisionist fairy tales, she’s written supernatural Victorian murder fantasies.

But with 2016’s 13 Minutes, a young adult thriller in the mould of the hit TV series Pretty Little Liars, in which a young girl is pulled from a river after being clinically dead and then finds herself unable to trust her friends, Pinborough’s career began to intersect with the rise of female-focused psychological thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

“I suppose I’ve always leaned towards crime as a genre, even with my books that had a massive paranormal flavour,” she says. “My Victorian novels, Mayhem and Murder, were crime stories, and A Matter of Blood [the first of her trilogy set in a near-future London ruined by financial collapse] was basically a crime novel. 13 Minutes is a crime thriller.”

She’s even written an episode of New Tricks, the BBC’s crime series starring Amanda Redman as the head of an unsolved crimes unit staffed by retired police officers, but has always balked at writing a straight crime procedural. “There’s a lot of research involved,” she laughs. “I’m just too lazy!”

Pinborough with Irvine Walsh – ‘the sweetest man I know’ 

Which is, of course, an out-and-out lie. Even a scant perusal of her back catalogue and her social media reveals a writer with the work ethic of a Shire horse. But something about prodding at the dark underbelly of women’s lives in suburban settings chimed with Pinborough more than straight police work.

“I was reading a lot of books like Gone Girl, that type of thriller, and I realised this was something I wanted to try my hand at,” she says. Behind Her Eyes came first, and Cross Her Heart will cement her reputation as the chronicler of the complex, churning lives hiding beneath veneers of respectability that are all too easy to crack.

Pinborough admits that Cross Her Heart was difficult to write. Was this because most of the women are experiencing, at some level, some kind of domestic abuse, either physical, emotional, or controlling behaviour? Pinborough wrote a frank blog post five years ago about her own experiences with an abusive partner when she was younger but no; that’s something she’s put behind her. She was more troubled by Cross Her Heart because of the plot line involving main character Lisa’s experiences with the death of two-year-old Daniel in a life prior to the one she has established with Ava.

“I knew I had to handle this right,” she says. “I knew it couldn’t be gratuitous, but it had to be there. I couldn’t not do it.”

Indeed, as a reader, you approach this event knowing it will be described, but dreading it. It’s to Pinborough’s credit that, when it arrives, it manages to be both emotionally devastating yet subtly and sympathetically handled.

Unsurprisingly, the television rights to Cross Her Heart have already been snapped up, by World Productions, who are behind the phenomenally successful Line of Duty. In fact, Pinborough has several works optioned for film and TV, and is working on her own original screenplay as well. Behind Her Eyes is in the works, 13 Minutes is in production as a Netflix original movie, and the rights to A Matter of Blood have been sold.

Sarah Pinborough and her dog Ted

Pinborough used to be a secondary school teacher, which she quit from 10 years ago to become a full-time writer. Well, almost; “I actually took six months off to write a book, and never went back.” She turns 46 this year and finds it hilarious that the Evening Standard’s diary column last year referred to her as a “girl-about-town”.

That was in an item about her budding romance with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, with which Londoner’s Diary made some hay. They’re not romantically together now, but still friends; in fact, Cross Her Heart is dedicated to Welsh, and his latest, Dead Men’s Trousers, is dedicated to Pinborough.

“He’s the sweetest man I know,” she says. “But our lives were just so different… we’re always in different places at different times. He wanted me to move to Miami with him, and perhaps if I had been single I might have…”

Before the gossip columnists sharpen their quills, the man in Pinborough’s life is Ted, her recently acquired dog, and star of her social media accounts. But she and Welsh agreed that their lives were probably not going to intersect in the same place for long enough to make a romantic relationship work.

Besides – Ted aside – Pinborough’s got plenty on her plate with the imminent release of Cross Her Heart, the various TV and film projects in various stages of development, and the small matter of the next novel slated for publication next year.

“I suppose you could call it Big Little Lies meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” says Pinborough. “But that’s just about all I can really tell you about it right now.”

Which, given the turn in Sarah Pinborough’s writing career of late, is pretty much business as usual.

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