12 May 2018

Review - Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Cross Her Heart
Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins, 17 May 2018
HB, 373pp

I'm VERY grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book which I've been eagerly awaiting.

Cross Her Heart must be a strong contender for THE psychological thriller of 2018. Building on the success of last year's Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough has packed in even more reversals, even more revelations, combined with a sense of sheer page-turning dread that made me equally desperate to find out what happened next - and fearful of knowing.

In this book, innocence is abused, the past explodes into seemingly orderly lives and secrets corrode relationships.

Lisa has worked hard to build a safe home for her daughter, Ava, far from her abusive alcoholic father, Jon. Their life might be quiet but it's secure.

Marilyn has secrets of her own. But she doesn't want to burden her best friend Lisa. 

But when Ava heroically saves a young boy's life, and it makes the national press, it looks like Jon has found them at last.

As danger draws closer Marilyn is the only person Lisa can turn to for help. But can they protect Eva when the threat seems to be everywhere?

Cross Her Heart escalates quickly. Almost from the start there's an atmosphere of menace. We sense that Lisa is in danger. We see clearly that she's troubled by the past and fearful, on edge - though we don't know why. But to distract Lisa there is the day to day routine of her work, rivalry with an unwelcome new colleague who may have secrets of her own, worry over ordinary teen problems with Ava. Maybe, just maybe, Lisa's a bit paranoid.

Alison, in whom she confides, certainly thinks so.

Pinborough excels at describing the day to day anxieties, insecurities and concerns of the women in this book. Eating. Dissatisfaction with their bodies. It's not only Lisa and her workmates, there's sixteen year old Ava too and her gang in the swimming club. They are so young, so insecure, but so much want to be grown up and at the same time they think they're so wise, so worldly, so much cooler than fuddy duddy mothers - just like every generation before them. Portrayed warmly and with heart, their lives are vivid and yearning. As the sense of dread builds, it's entwined with these mundane concerns, Lisa's work worries both fuelling her other fears and taking the edge off them.

Taking her edge off, too, so she doesn't see what's coming, despite spending years looking over her shoulder. The reader sees some, not all of it - several times I was almost shouting "LOOK OUT!" at Lisa. But of course she doesn't want to be worried, she wants to believe that all is well.

And then it hits.

Even as the storm rises and catastrophe strikes, Ava still focusses, though, on her own concerns, her boyfriend, sex, the uncertain tides and currents of her friendship with Angela, Jodie and Lizzie, the fraught relationship with her "weird Mum" who's oh so clingy and should just BACK OFF. Because it's all about Ava, isn't it? With great sympathy and compassion, Pinborough has I think absolutely nailed that desperate stage of life when everything is changing too fast and yet not fast enough, especially if your mother won't let you alone, texts three times in the evening to check you're OK, insists on driving you to school.

But why IS Lisa so overprotective? Parents always are, yes, but... there's more here. What's Lisa hiding, and why doesn't she just come out with it and tell Ava? But then everyone here is hiding something.

Ava certainly is.

So is Marilyn.

DON'T let anyone spoil this book for you by telling you what's going on. DON'T flick to the end. DON'T, above all, trust the book. It escalates quickly, yes, but it's twisty too, indeed even the twists have twists. Always remember it may not be going where you think!

All in all, an electrifying read but also, such a sad book. At times - be warned - it makes very dark reading and these characters really suffer. But Pinborough is never gratuitous. There is abuse here, and there are desperate, stunted lives. But there are also friendships, and loyalty, and trust given against all appearances and there is a moment towards the end of the book when a character says "I'm not going to wait around for a man to save the day. Fuck. That. Shit" and after what you've read through up to that moment you will, I guarantee, punch the air (please bear this in mind if you're reading the book on a crowded train).

This is vintage Pinborough, clever, insightful, deeply human, compassionate and perceptive. If you want to read about how modern lives work, and don't work, you need to read Sarah Pinborough's books. You need to read THIS book. Remember, though, the tricks that she plays with you, the reader, in them.

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