Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)
When the body of sixteen-year-old Natasha Howland is pulled from the freezing river, it takes paramedics thirteen minutes to revive her. Natasha is part of the popular crowd a school, a beauty queen and leader of “the Barbies”, a trio of blonde ice queens for whom status and appearance are everything. With so much going for her, it’s unlikely that her dip in the river was the result of a suicide attempt, but Natasha can’t remember any of the events leading up to her impromptu swim. With the help of her childhood friend, Rebecca, a girl she has recently shunned in favour of the Barbies, Natasha tries to piece together the days leading up to the incident, convinced that her so-called friends Hayley and Jenny were involved in some way. But as the mystery unravels, Rebecca discovers there is more to Natasha’s near-fatal drowning than anyone could have guessed.
From the outset, it’s clear that Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel is a change of direction from anything that she has written before; the resulting story is a cross between psychological thriller and young adult “high-school” fiction (with a distinctly British flavour). Within a handful of pages, the reader is captivated, putty in the hands of a writer who refuses to be constrained by genre boundaries, and who has proven time and again that she can manipulate her reader as easily as she does the characters on the page.
At the centre of 13 Minutes are two teenage girls from opposite ends of the social spectrum: on the one hand the blonde, thin, beautiful, popular Natasha; on the other, dark-haired, “dumpy geek”, almost-invisible Rebecca. Once close friends, these two girls are now separated by the chasm of teenage social hierarchy. Now, following her thirteen minutes in the arms of Death, Natasha returns to her old friend Rebecca who, in her desperation to be somebody, accepts Natasha’s return without question.
As always, the strength of Pinborough’s storytelling lies in her characters, in her ability to get deep inside the mind of a teenage girl, and show us the world through her eyes. In Natasha, we find a girl whose outlook on life has changed drastically since her return to life: there is regret for the fickleness of the younger her, the shallowness of a girl who values appearance over true friendship. Rebecca is equally damaged, but her life has taken a much different course from that of her childhood friend: she is part of the bottom end of the social structure, those classmates who are barely noticed, all but invisible to those around them. There is a jealous and needy streak that often surprises the reader when it rears its ugly, but it’s a result of that turning point in her life when Rebecca went from somebody to nobody at the whim of the most popular girl in school.
Told from alternating points of view of the central characters – Rebecca, Natasha, Detective Inspector Caitlin Bennett – the narrative is interspersed with documentary evidence – excerpts from Bennett’s case notes; interview transcripts between the girls and their therapist; newspaper clippings – that serve to give us further insight into the mind-sets of these characters. The mystery around which the story is constructed is interesting and engaging and when it takes a darker turn halfway through the book, we can’t help but be impressed by how completely taken in we were. There’s a touch of Pierre Lemaitre in Pinborough’s timing and execution, and in the ease with which she turns everything on its head.
Having skimmed through my reviews of previous Pinborough novels, I can see they are overflowing with gushing hyperbole. 13 Minutes shows that every word of it is true, as if we needed any further confirmation following last year’s stunning The Death House. This is the work of a writer at the very top of her game, one who is comfortable turning her hand to any subject, any genre. It’s a book that you won’t want to put down once you’ve started it, drawn in by the characters who are barely restrained by the book’s pages and by the author’s glorious ability to manipulate the reader in the same easy manner that she manipulates her creations. If you haven’t read Pinborough before, 13 Minutes is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then what are you waiting for? While you may not know what to expect story-wise, there’s one guarantee: there are very few writers as talented and as readable as Sarah Pinborough and 13 Minutes is an excellent new addition to an unsurpassed body of work.