13 Minutes - Sarah Pinborough

Sarah Pinborough is a versatile and imaginative writer, working through crime, horror and sci-fi (notably in her Dog-Faced Gods trilogy) and as a YA author under the name of Sarah Silverwood. A lot of what is great about Pinborough's writing comes through in her latest novel 13 Minutes, a YA crime thriller. There's no SF or horror here, but in other ways, namely in its depiction of the attitudes and behaviour of modern teenagers, it's a very scary place indeed.

There are dangers enough for any 16-year old girl in the world, and Natasha Howland, the most popular and beautiful girl at school, has been lucky enough to survive what appears to have been an attempt on her life. Found in a freezing river, her body functions have slowed down enough for her to be revived after being technically dead for thirteen minutes. When she is revived however, Tasha doesn't remember how she ended up in the river, but her perspective on the world seems to have changed slightly.

Her relationship with her best friends Hayley and Jenny, collectively known in school as the Barbies, seems a little more strained than it was before. The secret text messages that her two friends exchange moreover suggest that they know more about what happened and may even have been involved in Natasha's "accident". Tasha turns instead towards Rebecca Crisp, a surly grungy teenager who she long ago abandoned as a childhood friend when it became more important to hang out with cooler kids. Still hurt by the rejection and conflicted about the fact that her boyfriend was once rejected by Tasha, Becca is suspicious of her old friend's attempts to renew their friendship, but she believes that she might be able to help Tasha regain her memory of what has occurred.

It's undoubtedly always been tough growing up as a young girl who is different from the others, but it's also tough also to be popular and hold that popularity. There are power games going on here in 13 Minutes that would out-manoeuvre world leaders, and a lot of collateral damage can be caused to friends who aren't able to "keep up", or who are intentionally ostracised or bullied on some minor pretext just as a display of power and influence. Same as it ever was, but there are now some powerful weapons systems now that can be ruthlessly deployed to devastating effect in the modern world of young adults. Social media, Facebook, text messages, where even the mere fact of withholding information or not returning phone calls can have devastating consequences on a sensitive young person.

Pinborough's skill is that she can make this world vividly real and compellingly terrifying, while managing to keep one's unavoidable irritation at the behaviour of these moody and frightening teenagers at a minimum. Pinborough brings all those strong qualities about her writing to bear here, creating a crime thriller, a police procedural and a psychological examination, but also leaving little traces around that suggest more sinister elements at play, like Tasha starting to observe the number thirteen in everything around her. The writing style reflects this in a variety of techniques, using text messages, diary entries, police reports and newspaper articles (less convincing in their satire), and the various viewpoints all come together well to suggest that there is something deeper being examined here.

The incorporation of a school play of 'The Crucible' provides some clue that there's a similar community dynamic in the teenage social network (and a lot of witches!), with accusations, betrayals and closing of ranks all leading to a breakdown of social order that gets completely out of hand. It might appear to be on a lesser teenage networking level here, but there are revealing glimpses now and again of how those relationships and behaviours at school feed through into adult life. The young adults here are at an age where they are starting to see their parents in a new light, gaining an eye-opening awareness of the nature of their lives, weaknesses and failures. Becca however is determined not to be like them, but choosing not to play by the rules is very dangerous when there's only one power-game in town.

Pinborough's 13 Minutes might be categorised as a young adult novel, but it doesn't pull any punches, talk down to its audience or moralise about what it means to be a teenager, particularly the challenges facing a young 16 to 17 year-old girl. Dealing with the traditional areas of sex, drugs and alcohol is only a small part of it; mastering social media and thereby social acceptance is perhaps even more important to a young person at this stage. Pinborough recognises how scarily dysfunctional that world can be and how intense it can be to set a crime thriller there. Some of the crime elements might require a little indulgence as the plot starts to unravel and work through some conventional twists, but the observance of attitudes and behaviours in youth is what makes this stand out and remain thrilling to the conclusion.

13 Minutes is published by Gollancz on 18th February 2016

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