Like all powerful over-the-counter drugs, Behind Her Eyes deserves its own warning label. Although you’ve probably never heard of British novelist Sarah Pinborough, trust me: She’s all you’ll be talking about this spring, once you’ve recovered from her mindblowing, genre-bending, breakthrough psychological thriller.
To fully savor this Stephen King Carrie-esque moment, avoid any contact with the growing buzz concerning the novel’s ingenious, to-die-for twist. Rest assured, you won’t find spoilers here.
Behind Her Eyes opens with a classic love-triangle premise. One night in a pub, Louise, a single mom who works as a secretary at a London psychiatric clinic, meets—and shares a drunken, soul-stirring kiss with—a random bloke named David. On Monday, David turns up at work as her new boss. Awkward. Louise then bumps into a beautiful stranger named Adele on a latte run. Adele is new to town and clearly bestie material, but there’s a small problem: Adele is married to David.
“This may well be a Marmite book: You’ll either love it or hate it.”
Though it may read effortlessly, this story didn’t come easy. Although the novelist and BBC screenwriter already had more than 20 young adult, horror and thriller novels to her credit, Pinborough drew a complete blank when it came to plotting her big stateside break.
“I spent a week panicking about not having an idea, and that this was the biggest opportunity of my career and I was about to flush it down the toilet,” she says.
First, she narrowed her plot options to an affair. Then an affair with a secret. But that still felt far too run-of-the-mill for a free-range novelist who eschews genre-fication.
“As I was about to give up, I was looking for a coffee shop to work in and they were all busy and I thought, wow, this is never going to work. So I went to the pub and ordered a glass of wine and I immediately got the ending in my head,” Pinborough recalls.
That’s right: Behind Her Eyes sprang to life with a twist on that classic opener: “a girl walks into a bar.” Pinborough’s creative breakthrough not only morphed into the setup of the book, it also set the stage for a story told almost entirely through the alternating internal monologues of Adele and Louise.
“I’m really fascinated with what we present to the world compared to who we really are,” Pinborough explains. “We’re never truly honest because we’re never presenting our internal selves, which are normally filled with self-loathing, anxiety, worry; all the nasty sides we don’t want to show the world. Everybody has secrets, all the time. Even if they’re not dangerous secrets, we all keep secrets from each other.”
Pinborough admits that her surgically precise presentation of each woman’s ongoing internal dialogue, questioning and, ultimately, devious strategizing surrounding the affair was drawn from her own experience.
“I’m going to fess up: I’m a 45-year-old single woman and the veteran of many affairs, as has happened with many of my friends. Relationships tend to end these days because another one has started. We like to think that we’re all faithful, blah blah blah, but life is messy,” she says. “What I’ve realized is that when it’s a dynamic with a married man, the man becomes almost irrelevant and the women are entirely fascinated by the other woman.”
Credit the author with truth in packaging; this tale, including its incendiary twists, takes place almost entirely behind the eyes of Adele and Louise. Why not give David a perspective?
“I wanted it to be about Adele and Louise’s fascination with each other, and if David had a voice? It’s kind of all about him, but it kind of isn’t. It’s terrible: I’m a master feminist and this book is all about two women vying for a man! It’s kind of an observation of women as much as anything else,” she explains. “Besides, men are all so terrible at saying the right things that it’s quite easy to make a man look suspicious!”
How much of Pinborough might readers find in wealthy, troubled Adele or frustrated single mom Louise?
“We all really want to be Adele but we’re all Louise!” she laughs. “The difference between what we like to show the world and who we really are is in Adele and Louise. I’ve given up my electronic cigarettes now, but [like Louise] I was the queen of the electronic cigarette, and the glasses of wine at night, and wanting to lose three or four pounds. I am not Adele, but I think I’ve got Adele’s independence. I’m very friendly but I’m not very easy to get to know.”
Pinborough is well aware that she’s breaking new ground with the gob-smacking twist in Behind Her Eyes. If all goes as planned, her follow-up, Cross Your Heart, and her new YA title, 13 Minutes (soon to be adapted by Netflix), will be the start of something she dreamed about as a restless kid curled up reading Stephen King.
“I’ve created my own genre of female-centric thrillers, which is writing books where you can’t say what they’re about or you’ll give it away,” she says proudly. “When people are surprised, I’m like, it’s there; you just couldn’t tell what you were looking for. You shouldn’t cheat the reader; that’s my one big thing. They should get to the end and think, Ah! I should have seen that! Which is the important point, because I know that this may well be a Marmite book: You’ll either love it or hate it.”