Monday 15 February 2016

13 Minutes

13 Minutes, by Sarah Pinborough
I have a day job where I run the advertising on a very large magazine, that has a small book review section. This book came in, among dozens of others but the editorial team passed on it. So I took it, because I like Sarah's stuff and I was a bit sad that we didn't get it in the magazine. My disclaimer would be something along the lines of "Some people I work with received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. But they didn't fancy it, so you got me instead." Still, it's not as bad as the time a small press publisher tried sending one of my books in!

Early one winter's morning, a popular, attractive, intelligent sixth form student is pulled from the river. Natasha is resuscitated after spending 13 minutes being dead. Her best friends are acting suspiciously, and she received a mysterious text message in the middle of the night.

With no memory of the preceding eighteen hours or so, Natasha and her childhood best friend Rebecca rekindle their relationship as they start investigating the incident. While also worrying about boyfriends, playing chess, and working on the school's drama production of The Crucible. How could perfect Natasha have ended up in the freezing water? And what are her friends failing to tell her?

Sarah Pinborough captures perfectly the shifting alliances, insecurities and rivalries of teenage life, while never descending into stereotypes - the "needy" girlfriend turns out to have pretty good reasons for being clingy where her older boyfriend is concerned, for example. Creating five fully-developed and believable teenage female characters is no mean feat, and when most of their parents also pop up in significant supporting roles, not to mention the police, teachers and other adult cast, you're left with a packed guest cast.

While partly a study in how vile teenage girls can be to each other, 13 Minutes is mostly a thriller, however, and it is constructed tightly. Not a single comment in Natasha's diary is superfluous, not a single plot detail is extraneous (even if it turns out to be a red herring later). The fact that the girls are involved in a production of The Crucible resonates with the plot sometimes, and serves to misdirect the reader at other times.

With any thriller aimed at the YA market, a jaded adult can probably spot the odd plot development before it hits. Sarah's masterstroke is to signal some of her jabs just enough to make them satisfying for readers of any age, whether you predicted them or not, before hitting you with the next twist. "Didn't see that coming, did you, smartarse?" you can almost see her saying.

The girls drink, smoke, take drugs, shag, and are eye-wateringly catty to each other. This is very far from being an idealised depiction of young adulthood, and the plausible use of social media and messaging throughout (a notable Achilles heel for many a writer) adds up to a thoroughly modern novel.

13 Minutes is a gripping, funny and closely observed book that has been crafted to perfection. Everything is both not as it seems, and exactly as described. The book rewards careful reading, re-reading, and deserves to be a smash hit for a very hard-working writer at the height of her powers.

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