Sarah Pinborough’s new family trauma-driven psychological novel thrills

A couple weeks before her 40th birthday, Emma stops sleeping — just as her mother had done at the same age right before she suffered a violent psychotic break. Emma’s mother always told her she’d go the same way, that she had the same “bad blood,” and now Ella Emma’s terrified it’s true. But even as her sleep deprivation starts making her question her own reality, she can’t help but feel like there’s something else amiss — her mother is in the hospital after a sudden injury, her estranged sister shows up in town without a word of warning and she constantly feels eyes trained on her back. Is exhaustion just making her paranoid, or is someone really out to get her?

Emma’s sleeplessness is the titular force behind Sarah Pinborough’s “Insomnia,” a constant that underpins every thought and action in the book. The narration truthfully embodies the sort of bone-deep exhaustion that turns you into a barely-functioning shell: emotions oscillating between all-consuming and non-existent, brain foggy and slow, the night seeming so much more threatening when your body knows its reflexes are operating at half-speed, the flickers of movement at the edge of your vision and chunks of time lost to nothingness. The sort of tiredness that makes you want to shake someone and beg, like Emma and her mother de ella both do, “I just want to sleep.”

The “madness” Emma and her mother experience is kept within the bounds of belief by these very real manifestations of insomnia. However, its other symptoms are certainly not limited to the sphere of reality — there is, after all, no reason insomnia would make a mother physically abuse her child (as Emma’s mother does) or perform the sort of compulsive rituals Emma and her mother fall into. And, of course, there is no scientific reason why a daughter would find herself being unable to sleep and losing her grip on reality at precisely the same age her mother did. Pinborough stretches past reality in these places — increasingly so as the novel progresses — edging “Insomnia” towards science fiction without straying too far from her psychological thriller turf of her.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.