They Say Karma is a bitch,
13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough, or a lot of school girls do nasty things to each other all in the name of popularity, might seems like the stuff of Sunday afternoon movie fare on Channel 5, a means girls for the damp and dreary UK, however 13 Minutes is so much more than that. It is a deeply layered book that keeps the readers second guessing the truth of the mystery, while at the same time giving us a brutally honest and sometimes bleak look into the hearts and mind of a modern teenage girl.
The novel starts off with the chance discovery of Tasha’s almost dead body in the local river by a local musician. Cold and close to death this chance meeting will set on course a series of events that will see the ripples on the surface turn into huge waves that threaten to destroy everything in their wake. Tasha has no idea who put her in the river, or even why, there was sign of any sexual assault, and no sign of any motive, so when she sets out to discover why she ended up in the cold river no one is safe from the secrets and lies that she discovers.
At its heart 13 Minutes is a glorious modern take on the Gothic murder mystery, with dusty libraries, scatty debutants and isolated country mansions, replaced with teenage bedrooms, world wise teenage girls, wise beyond their age, and social media. Hell it even has a death scene at near the end of the book where one of the girl’s soliloquys in a spotlight’s glare, sees her wiped from the face of the earth like a greasepaint mask. For that is what all of the characters are, mask wearing actors desperate for the attention of the adoration of the audience, every watchful of their friends who are the custodians of their private fears, these girls will do anything to be adored by the spotlight.
However this is more than a murder mystery, albeit an excellent one, it is also a fabulous look the pressures of teenage life and sterility of our modern set of values. There are no real characters here, in the sense that everyone is either living a lie, or a barely existing. Even the parents of the kids, who exist in this novel in an almost wraith like limbo, with the barest of grasps on what is going on about them.
This is most evident with Tasha’s parents, her father is almost like a clockwork automaton, going through the endless cycle of work, work, work interspersed with flashes of concern for his daughter. He exists in his study like some sort of human cuckoo clock periodically popping out to announce the time. And yet, when compared to his wife he is almost father of the year material. At least he makes an attempt to understand his daughter. Tasha’s mother sees her more as an accessory and has as much emotional attachment to her daughter as she does to her unused laptops and ipads. With this almost sterile upbringing it is no wonder Tasha turned out the way she did.
Which is great for us, as Pinborough uses the Tasha’s character resplendently. Throughout the course of the book we go from loving her, liking her, loathing her, liking, her feeling pity, remorse, hate and almost every other emotion you could imagine. It is testament to the quality of Pinborough’s writing that this emotional rollercoaster never feels forced, she takes us by the hand and gently leads us on a deeply disturbing journey through the mind of a girl desperate to be loved.
The rest of the characters that make up this amazing book are also constructed with a keen eye. From Tasha’s duo of maid at arms, who jerk like puppets to every one of Tasha’s commands, to the ever cool Aiden, who is played so maliciously by Tasha to do her biding. We are never too sure of his sincerity, especially with regards to his relationship with Becca, and yet despite this and what he does we still feel for him.
Which brings us to Becca, the perfect counterfoil to Tasha, she has gone from being one of the chosen few to being the school’s outcast. She is a like a grungier version of Scooby Doo’s Thelma, spirited spunky and determined to get to truth of what happened. She is perhaps the only likeable character in the book, with the exception of a cameo from everyone’s favourite Ginger Horror writer. Becca goes through hell, during the course of this book, she is derided, ridiculed and left out to hang dry by everyone in this book, and yet she remains strong, and determined right to the bitter end. I wouldn’t say you will be rooting for her as there is still that slice of annoying self centred behaviour from her that is typical of everyone else in the book. But you will be enraptured by her actions.
And this is one of the many strengths of 13 Minutes, despite a complete lack traditional likeable characters Pinborough shows perfectly that a great story doesn’t need nice characters, what a story needs is great characters and we have them in abundance here.
So we have great characters and a great mystery, normally that would be enough for a great story, but Pinborough doesn’t stop there, she has wrapped all of these up in a fantastic narrative that mixes traditional narrative structure with some non-traditional narrative techniques that are used to drive the story forward and allow us a look inside the minds of the characters without ever feeling clumsy.
The use of reports from the doctors, therapists and police officers who worked Tasha’s case are a stroke of genius, they allow us to per beneath the surface and look at the murky depths of Natasha’s depraved mind. In the hands of a less gifted authors these would seem strained and fake, however they are slotted in the stories structure with surgical precision. And what would a book that deals with the impact of social media be if it didn’t actually incorporate social; media into the structure of the story.
The use of the text messages adds a frantic sense to the stories development, “delete, delete” soon begins to sound almost as hollow and emotionless as the a Daleks scream of “Exterminate” and in many ways the cold calculating mind of the girls is similar to that of the Daleks.
13 Minutes is a powerful and utterly compelling novel, cleverly constructed, with rich characters and emotive writing it cements Pinborough’s place as the Queen of modern British fiction.