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 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 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.
This break with reality allows Pinborough to portray the characters’ psychological distress as she wishes, rather than with the sensitivity and specificity that would be owed to a depiction of any one given illness. At no point does Emma label the psychosis her mother experienced, with its various symptoms and fluctuations, nor does she try to diagnose her own deteriorating mental state. Rather, it is simply referred to as “madness,” “bad blood” or occasionally “insanity,” broad terms (with questionable history) that convey a sense of psychological distress without specifying. Although still not the most politically correct of terms, describing Emma’s experiences so generally permits Pinborough more freedom to build a catalog of symptoms that may or may not be listed in the DSM-5. Doing so also avoids creating a harmful portrayal of actual people with real mental health conditions. Media representations of mental illness can heavily influence the way that society views and treats those conditions and the people who have them, and Pinborough is careful to make this a story of internal reflection and tenacity, not of diagnosis — though the stigma of mental illness inescapably creeps into others’ interactions with Emma as she tries to continue navigating her life.
And Pinborough is very successful in her attempts to build an interior world perilously altered (but not defined) by this unique experience of psychological disturbances. You feel Emma’s confusion and desperation, her terror and anger. She makes for the perfect unreliable narrator — you never know what to believe and what not to, simultaneously convinced that she has figured it out every time she makes a new conclusion and logically aware that she has no clue what is going on. You’re torn on who to blame, furious at others for turning their backs on or not believing her but understanding how terrible the coincidences surrounding her would look to someone not in her head.
Woven throughout this action-packed, thrilling story is also a more grounded narrative of ordinary life. Emma doesn’t just struggle with her mind — she struggles with making compromises with her unhappy stay-at-home husband, keeping up with her demanding career as a lawyer, guiding her teenage daughter out of bad decisions and managing a sibling relationship fractured by childhood pain.
However, despite this solid framework of well-developed conflict and authentic relationships, the ending seemed contrived, playing on thriller archetypes and aiming for shock value rather than something remotely realistic. The story shifted from an internal struggle, with Emma trying to reclaim her own memory and mind, to fighting an evil “other” that was more villain trope than developed character. The sensitive depiction of mental illness was also at its weakest at this point, with the antagonist seemingly suffering from an undefined form of trauma-induced sociopathy that rang Michael Myers-level fake.
That being said, I will grant that I was thoroughly surprised — at no point did I see this ending coming. With the help of a little more science fiction influence, each small clue and scattered fragment of memory managed to click right into place, wrapping up every loose end and leaving me stunned. And it truly was a thrilling sequence of events, like a good fight scene in an action film. If you’re willing to suspend rational belief and allow yourself to sink into the story as-is, it has the potential to put you on the edge of your seat.
“Insomnia” is a solid next addition to Pinborough’s already impressive collection of thrillers. Engaging from the first page, it deftly entwines the regular stressors and drama of everyday life with a consuming paranormal intergenerational mystery. Emma is both empathetic and frustrating, as most people are, and her emotions remain palpable in your body even as they become increasingly disconnected from reality. Although there were some pieces here and there that were less convincing, it kept me riveted throughout — which is, after all, what you really ask for in a thriller.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.