SARAH PINBOROUGH’S MESMERIZING psychological thriller Cross Her Heart is a nonstop, heart-pounding page turner, one of the most thrilling cat-and-mouse games in psychological literature in a very long time. What Gillian Flynn did in Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins did in The Girl on the Train, and Ruth Ware did in The Woman in Cabin 10, Pinborough does better in her unpredictable novel.
Cross Her Heart follows Pinborough’s dazzlingly original domestic suspense drama Behind Her Eyes (2017). The surprise ending of that novel was beyond anything revealed in The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game. In Behind Her Eyes, Pinborough established a narrative structure that she has developed and perfected in Cross Her Heart. Alternative narratives in various voices are interspersed with informative flashbacks and revelatory flashforwards. This makes for a challenging but immersive experience. Readers are bounced around like pinballs in a labyrinth.
Behind Her Eyes relied on two perspectives; Cross Her Heart depends on three different points of view. Both novels explore themes of false identities, female friendship, and individual empowerment.
The basic premise of Cross Her Heart is: What if the person you thought you knew wasn’t the person you thought you knew? The corollary to that is a rigorous examination of the novel’s recurrent theme, “To trust the truth of a thing, you have to suffer the thing.” These ideas are vigorously played out against the deft characterization of three women: Lisa Buckridge, an almost 40-year-old single mom; her 16-year-old daughter, Ava; and their decades-long friend, Marilyn Hussey. Each knows something about the long ago mysterious death of a two-year-old child named Daniel. But none of them is telling the truth about what they know — they hold secrets and tell life-changing lies.
The novel opens in the present with Lisa preparing to celebrate Ava’s birthday. But her mind is not fully focused on the party. As a senior member of a recruitment firm, she is anxious about preparing a presentation for an important client. The party and the demonstration are not the only stressful factors in Lisa’s life. Paranoia hovers over her. There is an unfamiliar blue car parked on her generally “quiet road.” A toy Peter Rabbit connected to her childhood suddenly surfaces in a recycling bin. She knows it is a toy that was buried with the murdered Daniel. When a song attached to her youth is anonymously requested on the radio, she is sure the dedication is meant for her. Is someone gaslighting her? Having been “lonely for a long time,” in the grips of “sad moods,” she finds herself “going around in circles of fear and grief.”
Ava has her own preoccupations to deal with, not the least of which is sex. She is close friends with three other girls, all of whom are on a competitive swim team. They call themselves the MyBitchesWhatsApp group or sometimes the Fabulous Four. Angela is “way better with makeup and clothes” than Ava and “[w]hen she’s all dressed up looks about twenty”; Lizzie is in an advanced “sixth form […] [in a] shithole school in the middle of town”; and Jodie, nearly 22, doesn’t seem to care about the age difference between her and the others and probably shouldn’t be hanging out with the other three.
Jodie’s backstory may be the most mysterious. She appears to be the most experienced and the most secretive of the group. She claims her mother is an interior designer for “big posh houses […] has a boyfriend in Paris where she’s currently living […] [and is] hardly ever home.” This proves convenient as a plot point because Jodie lives alone in her mother’s mansion.
The four girls share secrets, except the two that Ava is keeping to herself — the fact that she intends to have sex with a young black boy, “if only to get it out of the way,” and, more significantly, a “new secret,” a male Facebook friend, “Him,” whom she can “really talk to.” The unidentified Him that Ava communicates with on the internet is by default a fourth narrative voice. The reader is just as in the dark as Ava is in trying to sort out whether Him is a stalker or a murderer.
The novel quickly ratchets up the suspense as Lisa, Ava, and Marilyn pursue their respective, potential avenues of terror, each involving dangerous liaisons with male partners. Lisa believes she has a stalker who knows about her deadly past with Daniel; Ava escalates her relationship with the unknown “Him” online; and Marilyn, feeling “untouched and unwanted” by her husband, continues a treacherous adulterous workplace connection. Marilyn’s predicament threatens her 10-year friendship with Lisa. They work in the same office and have a serious crush on the same man, their superior.
The individual stories collide at a potentially tragic event at a River Festival. Once just a “few stalls and games and maybe a canoe race,” it has grown until it “covers the fields on both sides of the river.” A “shrill noise” alerts Ava to an emergency. A young boy about Daniel’s age falls (or is pushed) into the river. Without hesitation, Ava, relying on her swimming skills, dives in and saves him. She becomes a local hero. Her picture, along with her mother’s, appears in the paper. Dominoes begin to fall. Lisa’s past identity and her relationship with Daniel are disclosed. Ava learns a “horrible piece of history” about her mother just as she’s about to become involved in her own piece of tragic history. Marilyn starts to believe that Lisa did some “terrible, shocking thing” but is not certain what it is. Soon, the three realize they have only each other to depend on.
As Pinborough races from “Now” to the past and back again to the present, she carefully parcels out facts about Lisa’s former identity that impinge on the present and draw Ava and Marilyn into an intricate web. When the novel shifts to “Before,” Pinborough doles out details about Daniel’s death without revealing the complete story until the end of the novel. It’s almost impossible to mention several plot lines without engaging in numerous spoiler alerts.
No one is left unscathed. Someone has committed a brutal act that haunts them and incites an even greater evil and a blistering, sizzling, nail-biting series of events. Friendships are tested. Families are tempered. Identities shift faster than a cosmetic makeover. No one and nothing are what they seem. Readers must wrestle with the story’s elements, hoping everything will finally fit together when the mystery is resolved.
Everyone is playing a very dangerous game of connect the dots between betrayal and revenge. The result is the realization that the past is never past. It is like “shadows we can’t shake off.” What happens “Now” is dependent on what happened “Before.” Suffering the truth of “the thing” leads to constant guilt that becomes a “lifetime companion.”
Cross Her Heart is spellbinding. It is reminiscent of Heavenly Creatures and The Bad Seed. Who is the prey? Who is the predator? It should make for appointment television or binge-watching when it eventually appears as a multi-part series.
Readers need to read very carefully. And be afraid. Be very afraid. Your best friends might turn out to be your best enemies.
Robert Allen Papinchak’s literary criticism has been published in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Journal of Books, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.