I was so glad to see that one of the Book of the Month Club selections for February was a proper thriller–brand new, hot off the press of course–because that’s exactly what I was in the mood for this month. I was even more excited for Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes by the time it arrived in my mailbox, and I’m glad I did find time to read it toward the end of the month; not only because I don’t want to fall behind with my BOTM boxes so early in the year, but because this book was everything I wanted it to be.
About the book: The reader follows two first-person narrators, one in the present and one that spans a few different time frames from the present and past. Louise, the first character, is an ordinary single mom working as a secretary in a top-notch psychiatric clinic. Her husband is taking their small son for a month’s vacation, but Louise won’t mind having the time to herself because she’s made some new friends with which to fill the gaps. Adele is a stunning, friendly woman who reaches out to Louise with unfailing kindness. She seems a little nervous and maybe even afraid of her husband, and theirs certainly seems to be a strange marriage, but she persists through the challenges because she loves her husband immensely. Even their love is strange, though:
“Dinner’s ruined. We’re ruined. I sometimes wonder if he wants to kill me and be done with it all. Get rid of the albatross around his neck. Perhaps some part of me wants to kill him, too.”
The biggest problem is that Louise met a man in a bar just before the clinic took on a new doctor–and it turns out that the man she kissed at the bar is her new boss. Worse, he’s Adele’s husband. But he’s charming and attractive and he wants Louise–and she can’t resist. She knows its wrong to be friends with Adele while she’s having an affair with the woman’s husband, but she thinks she’s keeping secrets from them both and it can’t last past the end of her son’s vacation anyway. Louise decides to play with fire and keep both relationships–but perhaps there’s more the matter with the marriage than she thinks, and her secrets aren’t quite so hidden. On top of this tangled web, Adele is teaching Louise lucid dreaming, which is another element that adds to the confused mess between the three.
“Everyone’s life is probably a mess of secrets and lies when you boil them right down. We can never see who someone really is underneath the skin.”
This entire book had that wonderful dreamlike quality in which something is always slightly off. Maybe you can tell you’re dreaming, and maybe you can’t, but all these little signs are in place to warn you that reality has been slightly skewed. This is amplified by a slight paranormal element weaved throughout the book, reminding the reader that he/she is not in Kansas anymore.
“Sharing a secret always feels great in the moment, but then becomes a burden in itself. That gnawing in the pit of your stomach that something has been set free and you can’t call it back and now someone else has that power over your future.”
The only thing I would changed about this book is the romance–there’s all the evidence of love between David and Louise, and maybe the problem is only that the reader sees nothing through David’s eyes directly, but the love feels rather inexplicable to me. There’s no denying that it’s there, I just couldn’t quite figure out how it came to be. I like Louise as a character. But what about her and their relationship made David fall in love with her? I just couldn’t quite put my finger on the factor that would tip him from lust into love. But again, maybe that’s because we’re following Louise, who doesn’t seem to understand it any better than I do. I just wish I’d seen more of the falling-in-love part so that their relationship wouldn’t feel like a plot device.
“Had they told each other about me? Them and me. Always them and me, no matter how much I feel inserted between the two of them. Inserted or trapped. One or the other.”
And let’s talk about that surprise ending: I did guess some parts of the big reveal before it arrived, but only bits and pieces as the story neared its end. There are clues hidden throughout the book, and if the reader follows them closely the end is clear, although no less impactful if the reader is determined enough to put it all together him-/herself. However–there are 2-3 pages, one final section right at the end, that sneak up on the reader. This part is shattering and redeeming; it’s not the end the reader hopes for, but it’s so flawless, so perfectly fitting, so creepy and cunning that I loved it even while I hated it. The final clue that makes this ending fall into place comes so close to the end, and seems to be pointing to another major problem for the narrator that even with all the pieces it would be easy for the reader to be too distracted with what is right in front of them to put this final piece into place and shape the entire picture. Seeing the entire book with this new frame was what tipped my review from a 4 to 5 star rating. It’s the kind of ending that makes the reader think, “this was going on the whole time?” and turn back to the beginning to see the story again with fresh information. And that, in my opinion, is what makes a good thriller ending.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book didn’t seem to have quite as much scare and fighting-for-survival as other thrillers I’ve read, but it was clear from the beginning that the characters were involved in something strange that foretold disaster. These are exactly the characters I expected to meet in a thriller–the puppet, the puppet master, and the one somewhere in between who can see the strings but not quite escape them. Even without the tension of “who’s going to die now?” these characters and their unusual situation kept me fully invested. (Don’t let me lead you astray, though, there’s definitely murder involved. It’s just not the driving force behind the tension.) There was so much more to take from this book than I expected going in.
- I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh should be your next thriller to read if you like those surprise truths that are nearly invisible in the narration the first time through, but seem to have a lot of supporting evidence once you know. If the crazy twist ending is your favorite part of Behind Her Eyes, don’t miss I Let You Go.
- Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a strong recommendation if you like the atmosphere of the narration in Behind Her Eyes. Although The Woman in Cabin 10 has more of the scare factor, it also has the close study of character and the persistent tension that something is slightly off about the reality presented to the narrator.
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is just an all-around good thriller. It’s full of mind-boggling plot twists that the reader doesn’t expect, and it has that great element of a narrator who ends up most afraid of himself. For an exciting read that’ll keep you on your toes, Dark Matter is the way to go.
What’s next: I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel, the first book in her Infernal Devices trilogy and the fourth book in the great 2017 publication-order Clare binge I’m partaking in. I meant to finish this one in February so expect a review pronto. Shadowhunters in Victorian London is too good to read slowly, so it won’t take me long. I’m having a very different reaction to the book than when I first read it, though.
Have you read any great thrillers lately? I absolutely love trying put their pieces together, but I hate the disappointment when I actually manage it, so sometimes it’s hard for me to find a good one like Behind Her Eyes that will really surprise me. Do you know of any thrillers with totally unpredictable endings?
The Literary Elephant