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‘Insomnia’ may give you insomnia, but it’s worth it

Sarah Pinborough, the writer behind the Netflix chiller ‘Behind Her Eyes,’ delivers another nimble psychological suspense novel

(Martin Godwin; William Morrow)
4 min

Many of us were the kind of kids who begged our parents for “just one more story” at bedtime. That may explain why, as adult readers, we reach for mysteries as we’re drifting off to sleep. Mysteries are a plot-heavy genre that usually open on a problem (A body in the library! A purloined letter!) and end with a “solution.” That traditional narrative trajectory is conducive to calm: Even if we doze off halfway through a suspense tale, we can rest assured that all will eventually be right with the world by the time we finish the novel.

Or not.

Those generalizations about mysteries that I just spouted do not apply to “Insomnia,” a new psychological suspense novel by Sarah Pinborough, the author behind the Netflix chiller “Behind Her Eyes.” Even a small dose of “Insomnia” at bedtime will likely give you a bad case of the jitters.

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The novel’s caffeinated powers derive not primarily from its plot (which is a deft twist on the old “Gaslight” premise), but from the fact that it’s such a true-to-life depiction of what an extended bout of insomnia feels like, night after fidgety night. Here, for instance, is one of many passages in which our wide-awake heroine, Emma Averell, tries and fails to fall asleep:

“I took one of the sleeping pills at nine thirty and with the wine added into the mix, at least I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

But not for long.

I wake, with a gasp, a song playing loud in my head, music that fades the instant my eyes open to an almost tune I can’t quite grasp. I sit up, heart racing, and look at the alarm clock. It clicks to 1:13 a.m. That number again. Of course it is …

I was at work by six forty-five a.m., my head thumping with a sleeping pill hangover without the benefit of a good night’s rest.”

Emma is a British lawyer specializing in complicated divorce cases. She’s expecting to be made partner at her prestigious firm — a promotion that should coincide with her fast-approaching 40th birthday. That milestone is even more fraught for Emma than it is for most women because of all the secrets she’s kept from her husband, Robert, and their two children.

For starters, Emma’s own mother suffered a psychotic breakdown when she turned 40 and tried to smother Emma’s older sister, Phoebe, with a pillow as she slept. Robert and the kids know nothing of this terrible history; they believe Emma’s mother died long ago. Now, Phoebe has just turned up at Emma’s house, after being estranged for ages. Phoebe inexplicably pressures Emma to visit their ailing mother, who’s been locked away in a sanitarium since her homicidal breakdown. Phoebe also needles Emma about turning 40, knowing full well that Emma is terrified that she, too, has “the bad blood” that their mother claimed “ran in the family.”

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Weirdly, as Emma approaches the big 4-0, her behavior does become more erratic, mirroring that of the mother she’s so desperately tried to disavow. One afternoon at work, for instance, Emma’s secretary awkwardly approaches her to explain that she can’t transcribe the letters that Emma has left for her on a Dictaphone. When Emma listens to the recording, she hears a “harsh, urgent whispering,” and, for a moment, thinks she’s listening to her mad mother, ritually pacing and muttering sequences of numbers, the same sequences of numbers she’s now hearing herself whisper on tape. Even more chilling is Robert’s accusation that she is terrorizing their young son by standing beside his bed at night with a pillow in her hands. Emma has no memory of this behavior, but it’s hard to think straight when she’s functioning on so little sleep:

“It’s been only five nights of insomnia but it feels like a lifetime …

In the ladies’ I splash water on my face, getting too much of my hair wet as I do, … I have only an old mascara in my bag and it clumps in my lashes. There are dark rings around my eyes and dry patches of skin on my forehead that have made my foundation flake. I look a mess, crumbling on the outside as I crumble on the inside.”

Who among us in these anxious times cannot relate to bouts of sleeplessness and the resulting brain fog and dishevelment? “Insomnia” is a nimble suspense story, but it’s even more disturbing as an account of how a restless brain can weaken and lethally doubt itself.

Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.


By Sarah Pinborough

William Morrow. 322 pp. $27.99

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