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Onyx reviews: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 01/23/2017

In the post-Gone Girl world, readers are especially wary of unreliable narrators. Gillian Flynn's novel caught readers by surprise with a mid-book revelation about the nature and motivations of one of the characters, which caused them to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew up to that point.

No one is keeping secret the fact that there is a huge twist at the end of Behind Her Eyes. The promotional material advises readers not to trust the book or its characters. A Twitter hashtag celebrates the twist: #WTFThatEnding.

Knowing that something unexpected is coming changes the way a reader approaches the novel. Healthy skepticism about everything is in order. It's difficult to even allude even in the most general terms to the nature of the surprise without giving too much away. Perhaps that's for the best.

Behind Her Eyes is about three characters who make poor life choices. Louise is at the center of it all, a single mother whose ex-husband has just announced that his new girlfriend is pregnant. He wants to take their six-year-old son to France for summer holiday, which leaves Louise at loose ends. She's just discovered that the man she flirted with at a bar recently is her new boss, David (shades of the opening episode of Grey's Anatomy), a psychologist at the small clinic where she works a few days a week as a receptionist/personal assistant.

Her situation is complicated when she literally runs into David's wife, Adele, on the street one morning and the two become fast friends. Her determination to not make anything more of her attraction to David falls short, and soon she is embroiled in an affair, while maintaining an active social life with Adele. A lot of "alternate truths" are bandied about. Neither David nor Adele know that Louise is involved with the other. 

Or so Louise thinks. Pinborough reveals early on that Adele knows a lot more than she's letting on, and she is manipulating her husband and Louise. Adele has deep psychological issues, and has been institutionalized. Her husband treats her like one of his patients: he keeps constant tabs on her, medicates her, controls her finances, and behaves like she's emotionally fragile. There are hints of incidents from their past that bind them together more than love. Adele's wealthy parents died in a fire: was David responsible? And what about that dead cat?

But Adele is savvy and devious. She urges Louise to stop smoking and buys her a gym membership so she can lose a few pounds, all to make her more attractive to her husband. She clearly has a plan, but its nature is murky for much of the novel, as is the source of her intelligence about things that go on outside of her presence. The back and forth between chapters narrated by Louise and those narrated by Adele will pull readers along. It's a bit like watching a train wreck about to happen, knowing full well that disaster lies ahead without understanding the nature of the danger. Adele is creating a time bomb that she intends to lob at her husband, but to what end?

Even forewarned that nothing is to be trusted, readers will be lulled into a sense that they understand exactly what's going on. Louise is a hapless and engaging protagonist. Readers will feel sorry for her and feel frustrated by her actions and her inability to extricate herself from a no-win situation (even her philandering best friend understands the perils of her predicament), but her actions are nonetheless understandable and relatable. People make mistakes all the time. They aren't, however, often as expertly manipulated into them.

And what to make of Adele? Is she deserving of a reader's sympathies, too? She seems controlled and dominated by an abusive and potentially dangerous husband, while at the same time she seems in control of everything. And constantly, at the back of the reader's mind, that warning: be prepared for something unexpected.

Nothing can prepare readers for what happens in the final pages. The groundwork is there, but it's hard to imagine anyone putting the clues together and arriving at that genre-stretching conclusion. Not everyone will be fully on board with the revelation, most likely, but it is a clever bit of work nonetheless. That sound you hear is jaws dropping in astonishment. WTF indeed.

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