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Cross Her Heart


Cross Her Heart

Regarding British author Sarah Pinborough, I am proud to say that I knew her when. Well before she became a much-deserved internationally famous writer, I was fortunate to have received all of her earlier works by way of the long-defunct Leisure Horror Club. She began her career writing excellent dark horror with subjects like giant mutant spiders and haunted towers. Since that start, and sadly after the end of the Leisure Horror line of paperbacks, she verged into the area of psychological thrillers aimed at both adults and young adults.

Her previous novel, BEHIND HER EYES, was one of the most inventive thrillers I can remember and featured an ending I guarantee you will never see coming. Based on the history I have with Pinborough, it is with much eager anticipation that I now report on her latest book, CROSS HER HEART. The only issue readers might have with this new title is what I like to refer to as “The Sixth Sense” effect. When director M. Night Shyamalan released his Oscar-nominated film, The Sixth Sense, it boasted one of the most unexpected and terrific twists ever seen. The problem is that critics and viewers held all of Shyamalan's successive work up to this hit movie --- spending more time trying to figure out when and where the twist was coming from rather than enjoying the films for what they were.

"CROSS HER HEART is a top-notch mystery and psychological thriller that is reconfigured into a confounding puzzle made that much more complex by the fact that Lisa is a troubled character with a dubious past who is not easy to believe."

To avoid a similar occurrence, Pinborough wisely has the first big whopper of a twist take place well before the novel’s midpoint. The book opens with a quick chapter entitled “After” (the chapters alternate between “Before,” “After” and “Now”) that appears to come from a male perspective and drops a number of threats against an unnamed female. The last sentence reads: “He will destroy her for it.”

We then begin in the “Now” with Lisa. It's pretty obvious that she is the character the veiled threats were made against. Readers will learn, bit by bit, that Lisa once made a promise she did not keep --- even crossed her heart and hoped to die, then sealed it with a kiss. She will find out that deals like that cannot be broken without there being severe consequences. Life is simple for Lisa, a single mom with a decade spent at an employment agency as a recruiter and preparing to celebrate her daughter Ava's 16th birthday.

Chapters jump between time as well as different characters. We also get to see things from young Ava's point of view. She and her friends have a sleepover for her birthday with plans to have her lose her virginity to her boyfriend, Courtney. However, he is not the object of her desire. Ava has made a “friend” on Facebook who knows all the right things to say to her and always makes her feel good. She dreams of meeting him soon, having no idea what he looks like. Shrewd readers and overprotective parents will recognize this online relationship with much warranted skepticism.

Lisa has no real friends. The person she is probably closest to at work is her colleague, Marilyn. It's Marilyn who gently nudges Lisa towards their firm’s biggest client, Simon, a charming man who obviously has a thing for her. Lisa does not allow herself such luxuries, so it's a surprise when she agrees to a dinner date. She is described as a broken person. We never really know if this has to do with the circumstances of her marriage to Ava's dad, Jon, or the inner turmoil she is constantly in over a boy named Daniel. It becomes obvious that Daniel must have been her son, and indications are that he died tragically and very young.

The first major twist comes in a moment of celebration that is quickly turned into tragedy for all the characters involved. Ava, a champion swimmer at her high school, saves a two-year-old boy from drowning in the local river. The next morning, Lisa and Ava pull back the blinds to find the front of their house swarming with news reporters. What happens next will turn Lisa’s world upside down as the infamous past she has tried so hard to keep concealed is blown wide open. From this point on, the book careens forward at a frenetic pace. Readers will be so enthralled by the big reveal that any hope of sleep or housework will disappear like dust in the wind as they are compelled to read straight to the very end to see what happens next.

CROSS HER HEART is a top-notch mystery and psychological thriller that is reconfigured into a confounding puzzle made that much more complex by the fact that Lisa is a troubled character with a dubious past who is not easy to believe. Nevertheless, you cannot help but be moved by her plight to save her daughter --- a high price to pay for someone just seeking to outrun her past. Sarah Pinborough has another hit on her hands and should be included on any shortlist of today’s top thriller writers.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on September 7, 2018

Cross Her Heart
by Sarah Pinborough