|DON’T TURN AROUND
Harvill Secker (www.penguin.co.uk)
Cait volunteers for an organisation that helps women when they are most in need. Tonight, Cait’s job is to collect Rebecca from her fancy home in Lubbock, Texas and drive her the 300 miles through the night to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then bring her home safely again. They don’t get very far before it becomes clear that someone is following them, someone who isn’t above trying to run them off the road. Through a series of flashbacks we catch glimpses into the lives of both these women, and the reasons why someone might want them dead. But as the ice breaks inside the Jeep, Cait and Rebecca find that they have more in common than they might have thought, and an uneasy friendship begins to form, a friendship that will be tested to its very limits before the night is through.
Don’t Turn Around is Jessica Barry’s second novel, and it grabs the reader by the throat from the opening page and doesn’t let go until we reach the end, breathless and wishing only for more. Having whizzed through this excellent thriller in a matter of hours, I’m glad to discover that there’s another book out there that I can inhale at some point in the near future.
Barry’s narrative centres around two very different women who find themselves in a car together, in the middle of the night, on an empty road between two of America’s lesser-celebrated cities. On the one hand we have Cait, a bartender in the type of establishment that requires its bar staff to wear Stetsons and Daisy Dukes, a wannabe writer who has written one article that went viral and made her the target of a campaign of hate orchestrated by the type of men who like to tell the internet just why women are wrong. On the other, we have Rebecca, wife of the man who might just be Texas’ next senator, a woman on a mission that is clearly tearing her apart.
The narrative jumps quickly, in a series of chapters no more than a handful of pages long, between the points of view of the two women, and between the now – the car journey – and the then – the recent events that have shaped these women and ultimately led to them being in a car together. It’s obvious from early on just what awaits Rebecca at the end of this journey, but what remains unclear as the tension builds is just who is chasing them, and are they being chased because Rebecca is in the car? Or because Cait is?
Don’t Turn Around is a masterclass in tension and reader manipulation. We’re putty in Barry’s hands from the moment we start reading, and we’re part of the journey for the long haul, as the relationship between these women first thaws, then builds into something that we know will make them inseparable, not to mention an unbeatable team. Barry keeps us in suspense, only feeding us the information we need, as we need it. A number of red herrings are thrown into the mix to keep us on our toes, yet they all seem to tie neatly together in the end, so that not one word is out of place, not one character more or less than there needs to be in order to tell this excellent story.
In this era of #MeToo Barry uses Don’t Turn Around to highlight, and to examine, some of the issues that face American women – and, indeed, women around the world – in what is still very much a male-orientated society, from the reaction to Cait’s article to the many obstacles faced by women – particularly in southern states – who have decided to have an abortion.
It’s tough not to make comparisons to Spielberg’s Duel (nor to Richard Matheson’s original story), and Barry manages to capture the tension we feel as we watch that classic and put it on the page. But where Duel is little more than a game of cat and mouse, Don’t Turn Around is a much more cleverly plotted thriller that keeps us guessing til the very last page. I can’t believe I missed Jessica Barry’s first book. Don’t make that mistake: make sure Don’t Turn Around is on your must-read list for the rest of the summer. You can thank me later.