“We’re all keeping secrets,” muses Louise, the protagonist in Sarah Pinborough’s new young adult thriller Behind Her Eyes. Louise’s words reflect the novel’s theme of deception that is wrapped up in an enthralling journey – a journey of sporadic clues and a mad scramble to piece together the truth.
Louise is a single mom living in London, and she’s at a stand still. While she loves her son, and enjoys her job, she hasn’t fully moved on from her broken marriage. When we first meet Louise, she drinks a little too much wine and has a little too much post-divorce weight. Her dissatisfaction is compounded by watching her ex-husband start a new family. Louise hasn’t been with any one since he left, until she meets David. He’s a charming man who finally sparks her interest both intellectually and physically. The only problem, she later learns, is that he is married and her new boss. After David and Louise agree to put their one-time kiss behind them and maintain a professional friendship, Louise literally runs into his wife, Adele.
Adele is a willowy, olive-skinned beauty who exudes grace. Louise is entranced. During a coffee date, they bond over their mutual need for friendship and their shared tendency toward night terrors. Adele promises she can help Louise end her bad dreams and finally achieve a peaceful night’s sleep, as long as they keep their friendship from David; he’s weird about her friends, she cryptically explains. An odd request, but Louise is reluctant to pry into any marital issues, so she agrees to keep the secret. It’s amid lunch dates and gym sessions with Adele that Louise begins an affair with David. She’s certain neither of them know. David doesn’t know she’s a friend of his wife’s, and Adele doesn’t know she’s in love with her husband.
This may sound like just another popular marital thriller, piggybacking off the successes of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. And it is, in most respects. There is the wife who may or may not be framing her husband, and the husband who isn’t scot-free in the marital mistakes department either. Behind Her Eyes distinguishes itself in its fusion of marital drama and a world of fantasy. While the affair unfolds, Adele is teaching Louise how to lucid dream. Soon, Louise is able to control her dreams and stop her disruptive night terrors. Then she starts seeing the same mysterious door every night. It’s a door she hasn’t actively placed in her dreaming mind, and she’s unsure of what lies behind it.
The novel continuously shifts between both Louise and Adele’s points of view, providing a unique yet perplexing account of the events that unfold. The shifting perspectives serve the suspense well, and it would be far less absorbing if told from one viewpoint. Louise is the reliable character, the voice of reason. She’s just a normal woman, who found herself in the messy middle of a marriage. Adele’s accounts reveal that she knows about her husband’s affair, because she has the eerie ability to somehow see events happening. Regardless, she remains deeply fond of Louise and never retaliates against her friend. Pinborough is able to paint complex, flawed characters that are equally as hate-able as they are lovable.
Adhering to the genre, there is consistent reference to a dark secret shared by Adele and David that binds them together. Louise’s realization that she is capable of astral travel is the truly gripping subplot, and one that should be fleshed out more in the narrative. It’s what makes this novel stand out amid a market of similar thrillers. The out-of-body experiences add a supernatural flare, and provide a key piece to the puzzle that binds the three characters together.
Pinborough, who has published more than twenty novels, is no stranger to thrillers. Behind Her Eyes is an exploration of secrecy, and the psychology of the false and true self. It’s an extremist take on the idea that you may never know the experiences and inner-workings of those closest to you. And the knowledge that everyone has a “face” they present to the world. The incorporation of lucid dreaming and astral travel adds a delicious mysticism to Pinborough’s investigation of consciousness. Accounts of sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming are becomingly increasingly common, leaving Behind Her Eyes readers to ponder the possibility of a doorway to another level of consciousness.