13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough
“People so often try and make themselves look good when they lie. That, however, should never be the point. The point should be to distract from the truth. Whether you look good or not is irrelevant. All that matters is that you sound believable.”
In 13 Minutes, Sarah Pinborough relocates the Whodunnit thriller to the modern day high school. In doing so, she has created a book that is both an original and self-aware YA thriller and a reflection on the masks we wear at school to hide our fears and insecurities, and how these shape our lives well into adulthood.
Natasha Howland, the most popular girl in Brackston Community School, is dragged out of the river one morning and revived after being medically dead for thirteen minutes, with no memory of how she got there. Reuniting with Rebecca Crisp, an ex-friend she kicked out of her social circle for not being cool enough, she begins to suspect that her current best friends, Hayley and Jenny, could be behind her accident.
13 Minutes is as tautly constructed and as tensely paced as the best murder mysteries, and Pinborough has a lot of fun playing with all the associated tropes, from the early morning dog walker who finds Natasha in the river to the various red herrings she throws at the reader. Natasha and Rebecca are both high school students, and before they realise how high the stakes are, they both have fun living up to the role of detectives, setting elaborate traps to try and draw Hayley and Jenny out, and even playing chess against each other via phone. The story is told from Rebecca’s point of view, along with entries from Natasha’s journal, records of her visits to the psychiatrist, and various newspaper cuttings. This technique immerses the reader in the girls’ perspectives as they unravel the mystery around them.
For this to work, it is crucial that Pinborough understands teenage psychology. Pinborough manages the delicate balance of capturing the heightened emotional state of being a teenager without being patronising. Thus, Rebecca’s relationship with Aiden, her boyfriend she is infatuated with but who is actually kind of a deadbeat and a jerk, is sincerely and intensely portrayed, even as Rebecca over the course of the book learns not to rely on his attention for her self-esteem and comes to realise that promises of ‘forever’ can’t always be taken at face value.
Pinborough also deftly portrays how social media and the internet have become an important part of the teenage experience, at least since this reader grew up. Without ever being preachy she subtly shows how social media can become a new tool of bullying and spreading gossip; the spectre of cyberbullying and the psychological damage that can cause is never far away. She even uses Hayley’s and Jenny’s texts to convey further information to the reader.
13 Minutes is a brutally honest look at the darker side of socialising as a teenager. Although Rebecca Crisp, geeky, gothy, sensitive and insecure, is a lot more sympathetic than Natasha, whose diary reveals her to be selfish, manipulative and shallow, the book unflinchingly explores her flaws. Rebecca is deeply insecure. Despite the fact that she has made a life for herself outside of the cool kids, in her desperation to be Natasha’s best friend again she dumps her current best friend Hannah Alderton for being clingy and uncool. Rebecca’s treatment of Hannah is increasingly unpleasant, and when things take a turn for the tragic Pinborough is utterly unsparing in confronting Rebecca with the nature of her betrayal of her friend. Rebecca’s attitude towards Jenny, who is from a more deprived background than most of the other students at Brackston Community School, is embedded with the same class snobbery as Natasha. For all that she views herself as morally superior to her ex-best friend, they have more in common than perhaps she would like to admit.
The book explores the sheer intensity of peer pressure that young people are under, the constant comparing of oneself to others, and the way this encourages people to hide their true identities. Pinborough fully explores how damaging this is, both in the long and short term. It is this dehumanising process that ultimately allows the book’s villain, a complete sociopath, to hide in plain sight amongst a bunch of teenage girls, and what allows her to manipulate everyone within the story according to her own plan. Interestingly, many of the adults in the book, from Caitlin Bennett, the detective inspector investigating Natasha’s case, to Jamie McMahon, the dogwalker who finds Natasha, and Aiden’s boss, are still defined and reducible to who they were at school. The people we choose to be in high school stay with us long after we graduate.
At the centre of the book is Natasha herself, a character both fascinating and terrifying. She is ruthlessly smart, always certain of what she wants and able to figure out exactly how to best use people to achieve her will. Her relationship with Hayley and Jenny, and her childhood friendship with Rebecca and Hayley, is central to the entire story. Her diary entries reveal her to be spoiled, self-centred, and narcissistic. In many ways she represents the worst qualities of the pampered elite, both in and out of school, people so used to having their every whim obeyed that they’ve ceased to see those around them as real people.
However Pinborough portrays her with real depth. Through her diary we learn of her anxieties about her friends, family, and sexuality, about how her near death experience has shaken and frightened her, about how she’s afraid to sleep. She has an underlying need to be in control of every aspect of her life, and her thirteen minutes of death represent a terrifying breach in that control. Similarly, while not entirely sympathetic characters, the relationship between Jenny and Hayley, and indeed Hayley and Rebecca, and the reasons for Rebecca’s exclusion from the social group, are more complex and deeper than they at first appear.
13 Minutes barely contains any speculative or fantastical elements, existing quite happily in a realistic modern day setting. Rather, it shares more DNA with the films Heathers (1988) and Mean Girls (2004), darkly comic teen films that use their exaggerated humour to examine bullying and peer pressure, whilst utterly nailing the feeling of being a teenager. Similarly, Pinborough’s novel uses the amusing conceit of a murder mystery set in a school and a pacey, entertaining story to explore the same themes. This allows the book to explore not just bullying and peer pressure but sexuality, drug abuse, and death in a way that is approachable but not patronising.
The sheer joy of Pinborough’s writing, and her engagingly complex and compelling characters, carry the reader effortlessly through to some quite dark places. 13 Minutes is an entertaining story with mass appeal that profoundly engages with difficult questions; surely this is all we can ask of any work of art