Publishers love when they chance upon a manuscript with a unique selling point, or one that could potentially ride the coat-tails created by a previous smash-hit book. Bridget Jones spawned a huge chick lit industry that gave way after a few years to female-centered mysteries, like Girl on a Train. Gone Girl was a huge word-of-mouth success, spurred on by its well-paced, well-written, keep-them-guessing narrative. When a fairly well written story goes in a satisfactorily unexpected direction, the marketers, with dollar signs in their eyes, can get testimonies from trusted sources to spread the word by waxing lyrical about the twist, or the un-put-downable factor. Which is precisely how I was led to Behind Her Eyes, the current work of fiction being hailed as the next-big-thing.
The first few chapters indicate a Single White Female type set-up; a married psychiatrist has a one night stand with a woman who turns out to be his new secretary, and the spurned wife retaliates by secretly be-friending the mistress. Told from the points of view of the two women involved in the love triangle, an insight begins to emerge into their respective psyches, and the reader’s alliances can’t help but shift from one to the other. It’s an interesting and effective device; going between the interactions between the women, their opinions of each other and the way they handle each other; the impression that you are in possession of the upper hand is driven by having access to each of their perspectives. But as the plot thickens, so too does the mystery surrounding each of them, and one begins to suspect that there’s more to both of them that has yet to be revealed.
A peculiar idiosyncrasy the women have in common is the phenomenon of night terrors. It emerges that Adele, the wife, has conquered hers by using a technique she learned years ago while resident in a facility to help her come to terms with her parents’ unexpected deaths. To Louise, the mistress, Adele relinquishes a notebook used by a friend she made there who also suffered from night terrors, and through this diary we gain a third angle; the narrative of Adele’s time in the mental health residence. And it’s here that things begin to get weird. As the story develops, the links between the past and the present become much clearer, and the denouement is an unexpected and cleverly constructed twist that immediately ties up any loose ends you may have thought were left hanging.
It was because of the promise of a juicy ending that I continued to read at quite a quick pace, rather than the fact that it was a page turner. The book has the disadvantage of having a good concept, and a good but thin plot; to add too much in would overload it and make it highly confusing, not to mention convoluted. This results in the tell-tale sign of drawing out the plot by leaving unnecessary red herrings here and there, and by signing off the short chapters with rather clunky cliff-hangers. Louise’s little boy, whom she shares with her ex-husband, needs to be disposed of to France with his father in order for Louise to pursue her affair with the good doctor. This takes far too long to happen, and her agonising over the situation is laboured, as are most of the passages pertaining to Adele. She continuously repeats herself and her plans, which feels redundant as the point of it is very much driven home after the second or third time.
The husband is also quite a strange character. A bleeding heart shrink with a drink problem, he is the object of both women’s desires but it never made sense to me exactly why, despite learning later on why he has such a spell over Adele. Louise is just hopelessly drawn to a philandering loser who happens to have a medical degree, and it seems like she’s sabotaging herself and her really quite comfortable life, and her burgeoning friendship with Adele, for a misguided bit of slap and tickle. However the heart wants what the heart wants, and that may well be the explanation for the whole sorry mess the characters find themselves entangled in. Behind Her Eyes may not be high literature, but once you suspend your disbelief and let the story carry you along, it’s not a bad way to spend a few evenings. And yes, the ending is sort of worth it.