Map of Blue Book Balloon

18 January 2022

#Review - Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough
HarperCollins,  31 March 2022
Available as: HB, 400pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9780008289126

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Insomnia to consider for review.

Sarah Pinborough is my go-to author for stories that bring out the horror inherent in everyday life. I consider myself very lucky to not suffer from insomnia, but I know that for those who do, nights spent fruitlessly trying to sleep - and days after, operating on no rest - are one of those horrors. It's a curse that's being visited on high-flying lawyer Emma at the start of this book, just as her oh-so-perfect family begins to fly apart - and she faces her fortieth birthday.

That birthday is often seen as a watershed, but Emma has a special reason to dread it: at the same age, her mother Patricia had a breakdown and tried to kill Emma's sister Phoebe. Thirty five years later, Emma is experiencing the same symptoms as Patricia - insomnia, blackouts, an obsession with a random string of numbers, and a compulsion to wander the house at night checking that doors and windows are locked. Add to this that Emma's 18 year old daughter Chloe seems to be acting out, her 5 year old boy Will is suddenly afraid of his mother, and that husband Robert is distinctly unsympathetic to Emma's worries, and Insomnia delivers a potent mix of internal and external stresses.

We get to know Emma as she tries to navigate these stresses (as well as learning more about her background and history). She's a person who has made superhuman efforts to erase her distressing past - to the extent of telling her family, friends and employers that her mother died all those years when she didn't - and her first instinct, as things begin to go bad, is to clamp down harder, to try to control everything and everyone, herself included. I'm not going to tell you how that goes, you'll have to read the book, but I will say that Pinborough is just superlative here at exposing how Emma unravels. Insomnia keeps the reader both needing to know what happens next, and dreading to see exactly how much worse Emma will make things for herself. The tension is simply electric, the situation more and more complex and intractable, the stakes higher and higher.

At one level, it's a portrayal of a woman driven by demons from her childhood, trying to work out what went wrong all those years ago so that she can put it right and protect her kids.

At another, we see a deeply paranoid and scared woman doubting herself and her own sanity, lacking any place of safety or support network. Most of her circle are in the same competitive business milieu as her, or excel as near Stepford wives. Emma is already out on a limb.

And at yet another level, there are the pressures of modern life: a husband who's not very supportive (he comes over to me as a bit of a pudding), a boss who sees Emma as arm candy as much as a talented and hardworking individual, kids who are, well, you know, kids. 

With so many threats and concerns and these three different sources of stress, clicking round like the wheels on a demon-possessed safe, there must be a risk that suddenly everything will line up, the door swing open, and some very nasty secrets emerge. But what are they, and how can Emma keep them locked away? Should she even try?

As with all Pinborough's writing, the tension simply crackles off the pages of a book you MUST read and one which, once begun, will gnaw at your reading brain till you get to the end. As a central character, Emma is simply magnificent. I didn't actually like her very much to begin with. As a divorce lawyer, she regularly throws other women under the bus to advance her career. (Her clients seem mainly to be middle aged men with an eye for a younger replacement; it's clear Emma is doing what she has to advance in a very patriarchal setting). Her impulsiveness verges on the self-destructive, and her  attempts to distance herself from her past - including her mother and her sister - suggest coldness, even selfishness. But as the story developed and Pinborough's nuanced characterisation drew me in, I felt for Emma more and more - including sharing her fear that she might, in one of those moments she can't remember, have done something truly terrible.

This book is BOUND to be one the highlights of the 2022 reading year. Watch out for it.

For more information about Insomnia, see the publisher's website here.

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