Book Review: Cross Her Heart - Sarah Pinborough
Cross Her Heart - Sarah Pinborough ***
Sarah Pinborough has a varied back catalogue in a number of genres, from YA fiction to horror, fantasy and science-fiction, but her recent move to HarperCollins has seen her work head in perhaps more of conventional mainstream psychological thriller direction. There were genre elements to her previous novel Behind Her Eyes however which didn't please everyone, but the book proved to be a popular bestseller. Her latest novel Cross Her Heart however is very much on more conventional ground in the very popular female paranoia/male aggression thriller genre. Even within that however, Pinborough demonstrates familiar qualities that elevate this above the crowd, but there is also another Pinborough characteristic that is a little more problematic with Cross Her Heart, and that's a tendency to go somewhat over the top with unconvincing twists, revelations and resolutions.
Even if it does feel rather conventional in its three-part, three-act structure, Cross Her Heart at least starts out promisingly developing a situation that has enough intriguing hints to suggest that there's a lot more that we don't yet know about going on beneath the surface. One area the Pinborough is strong and insightful in is the dynamic between females (see Thirteen Minutes) and there's a particularly troublesome one that exists here between 40 year old single mother Lisa and her 16 year old daughter Ava, both of whom - for different reasons obviously - are at difficult stages in their lives. Each also have issues and pressures with their own female peer group, Lisa with work colleagues, Ava with her school friends and colleagues from her swimming club. There are however clearly things that both mother and daughter don't speak to each other about, and underlying both their difficulties is a man, and it may even be the same man...
We don't initially know much about Lisa's background, but hints and concerns - and an opening prologue that indicates that there's a man looking for revenge for desertion - suggest that she's run away from an abusive partner. Ava doesn't know anything about her father and, having just turned 16, she's less interested in boys of her own age and more intrigued by a mysterious older man who she has been in contact with via Messenger. Ava is hoping and expecting that they might meet up finally just as soon as her exams finish. That's troubling enough, but there are other little strange events going on in the background however that may just be Lisa's fears and paranoia or it might be something more sinister. Certainly as far as Lisa's friend Marilyn is concerned - Marilyn even getting her own viewpoint sections in the book - there are clearly issues of abuse in her seemingly perfect marriage that Marilyn has managed to keep hidden from everyone, even Lisa.
The first part of Cross Her Heart is relatively straightforward then in how it sets up a situation and hints at things to come. Everything you think you know however goes out of the window in the second part, and obviously I'm not going to reveal any of that in this review. Suffice to say that the second half lays suspense thriller on top of the social or relationship dramas that have been outlined well in the first section. There are even some connections to real-life news stories that give the story an added sense of realism and credibility that you don't always get in paranoia thrillers of this kind. These things unfortunately do happen in real life and the background details, motivations and personal circumstances are never covered as thoroughly as Sarah Pinborough lays them out here, so there's almost an element of social commentary here.
Unfortunately, that tends to get overshadowed by the trappings of the genre that demand a further raising of the stakes in the third act, with all its obligatory twists and turns. Part three certainly goes for the emotional jugular as all the tensions (particularly in that highly volatile female dynamic) reach a head, but Pinborough nonetheless still manages - for the most part - not to fall back on lazy characterisation in terms of how the male characters interact with that or have a part to play in it. It gets a little overheated certainly, but by this stage you should feel involved with the characters and feel like you're starting to get a handle on what is really at stake in their lives. There is a deeper truth to be found in the baring of souls in this way, and it rebuilds the basis of relationships in a way that gives them greater meaning. Sadly, all the good work is undone by Pinborough's weakness for endings, Cross Her Heart descending unnecessarily into Scooby-Doo level Grand Guignol that cheapens all the good work done before.
Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough is published by HarperCollins on 17th May 2018