13 MINUTES by Sarah Pinborough – a review by Gary Fry
Call me naïve. I haven’t read much Young Adult fiction. I think I expected material a lot more sanitised than similar stuff for adults. You know what I mean: swearwords replaced by “damn” and “bloody”; violence supplanted by mere shoves and pushes; and as for “scenes of a sexual nature” – well, forget about that.
Then I read 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough.
By the end of only the first few chapters, I’d readjusted my expectations. Pinborough depicts modern school life, with teenage girls at its heart, with social realism-like accuracy. There are cattish calls in corridors, their unmasked subplots on social media, experimentation with drugs, high-tailed parties, and genuinely erotic encounters in the backseats of that nostalgia-baiting “first car”.
All this soap opera detail is a vital context for the story which rapidly emerges. A girl has died after falling in a river and was resuscitated after 13 minutes. What were the causes of her death? Who was involved? And how will it all end?
These are all intriguing questions and genuinely haul the reader by the collar right the way through the book. But I want to say that the novel is much more than a “good story, well told”, an unfailingly twisting plot with enough red herrings to fill the river in which the victim fell. It is all these things, but as I say, it’s a lot more, too.
Essentially, the psychological tone of the book feels real. The characters are early twenty-first century teens with all their premature cynicism, concerns about the “playground pecking order”, eagerness for highs (friendship, love, intoxication), and a genuine interest in things that matter (especially the drama woven intertextually through the novel, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible).
These convincing depictions of bright young things on the fringe of emergence into the world at large allows for some authentic observations about being that age and all the confusing emotions involved:
Adults being grateful to teenagers was weird. And a little bit scary. Like they were all becoming equals and there was no safety left in the world. Their childhoods were over. They were in a waiting room at the cusp of adulthood. No-man’s-land, neither one thing nor the other. Sometimes it was brilliant. Sometimes it totally sucked.
On other occasions, Pinborough, writing principally about girls here, reflects specifically about being female:
We’re all strangers. Circling each other. I see the same thing with my mum and her ‘ladies’ lunch’ group. They laugh and joke and say how much they love each other, but as true as that might be, they still watch each other for weakness. For chinks in the armour. I don’t think boys are the same. Boys are dogs. Women are like cats. Individuals by nature. We are not pack animals.
It’s touches like these (and there are plenty) which elevate the narrative above mere soap opera. The voice feels grounded in its world and the insights are unstrained. They’re not merely the objective observations of an older, all-knowing novelist; they’re written by someone who knows how these characters think and feel. And I believe that this is fiction at its best.
Another major strength is the book’s structure. Pinborough employs a wide range of narrative strategies to convey her story with tricksy verisimilitude. Here we have straightforward third-person prose, diary entries, newspaper clippings, cell-phone text exchanges, and verbatim transcriptions of interviews with police and psychotherapists. Collectively these techniques not only enhance the realism of events depicted, but also allow the author to play with the reader’s understanding of developments. Which of these sources should we believe? Who’s telling us the truth here? It’s all cunningly and seamlessly done.
OK, so all praise so far. But did I have any issues with the novel? I think for me there is a very minor problem with the plot. It’s all very ingeniously mapped out and paced, with Pinborough keeping innumerable plates spinning for extensive periods. However, given the socially realistic nature of the whole work, there’s one scene (I’ll struggle to describe it without dropping in a spoiler) which felt a bit too “Agatha Christie”. Let’s just say it involves a stage device and how it was used in an unintended way.
But that is a relatively minor matter. What we have here is an absolutely gripping book with likeable/detestable characters (and sometimes the reader’s perceptions shift in this regard relating to the same person); an ingenious and hard-to-guess plot; a beguilingly clever structure (which actually contributes something to the story and isn’t just smart-arse for its own sake); some genuinely erotic scenes; a documentary-accurate depiction of latter-day yoof’s social and private lives; and a highly satisfying conclusion.
The book is being described as a YA novel for marketing purposes. But if you’re as old, jaded and out of touch as me, don’t let that put you off. I haven’t had this much fun back at school since I reread Stephen King’s Christine.