Book Review

Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough

Publisher: HarperCollins

In the dead of night, madness lies…

Emma can’t sleep.


It’s been like this since her big 4-0 started getting closer.


Her mother stopped sleeping just before her 40th birthday too. She went mad and did the unthinkable because of it.


Is that what’s happening to Emma?


I love Sarah Pinborough’s novels and couldn’t resist insomnia when it was published earlier this year.  My expectations were high, and the author did not disappoint – I absolutely love this novel!

The main protagonist is Emma who is quickly approaching her 40th birthday.  While this is a seen as a key milestone for many, for Emma it carries even more significance than most.  Her mother suffered a psychotic break on her own 40th birthday, something from which she never recovered, leaving both Emma and her sister in foster care.  For her mother it began with sleepless nights, and now Emma herself is starting to suffer from insomnia.  Is it just paranoia as her birthday approaches, or is there something that runs in the family as her mother claimed all those years ago?

Emma works as a divorce lawyer and is on the cusp of being made a partner at the firm, her career not side-tracked or put on hold after having children as their father, Robert, agreed to be a stay-at-home dad.  While Robert agreed to this, it’s clear that he’s becoming more than a little fed up with the situation, and his resentment doesn’t take long to make itself apparent.  Inequality in relationships is often explored from the perspective of the man being the main breadwinner, and it’s interesting to see the role reversal play out in this novel, although Emma is still relied upon to pick up the chores that Robert doesn’t do / can’t be bothered with / forgets about. It seems there’s no escape from housework, whatever one’s situation. Emma’s relationship with her sister, Phoebe, is also difficult – they were once close, and yet they now seem to argue almost as soon as they’ve greeted each other.  This isn’t helped by some history between Phoebe and Robert, which Emma suspects may not be as completely in the past as they claim. Throw two children with their own problems into the mix and it’s no surprise that Emma is starting to feel a little strained. 

If you’ve read any of Pinborough’s novels, you’ll know that she is a master when it comes to pulling off a twist and Insomnia more than lived up to my expectations in that regard.  The novel is perfectly pitched and throughout I wondered whether Emma was indeed falling victim to the madness that she fears or whether her own worry was causing her symptoms.  Either option seemed plausible to me, and I raced through this to find out what the outcome would be.  And Emma’s symptoms are familiar, at least initially.  I think we’ve all had sleepless nights, and those moments where we feel the need to check that the door is locked for the millionth time, even though we know that it is.  Emma’s behaviour does become increasingly erratic as the novel progresses and the reader can’t help but wonder at the cause even as Emma and those around her do the same.

There are additional elements that make the reader wonder as odd things begin to occur, and as Emma begins to experience periods that she can’t remember.  Emma even questions herself “Have I become my own unreliable narrator?” and I did wonder how much I wasn’t being told. It makes for a gripping read, and because we only see Emma’s perspective, I have to admit that I grew increasingly suspicious even though Emma is for the most part a sympathetic character.  Her situation isn’t helped by those around her, all of whom seem to have secrets of their own.  It adds to the sense of unease throughout as the possibility occurs that someone is deliberately messing with Emma. There are plenty of characters to be suspicious of and it all works brilliantly to keep the reader guessing.   

I read Insomnia in two sittings.  I was gripped from the very first page and desperate to know what would happen to Emma as her 40th birthday crept ever closer.  I may have worked out one minor aspect of the denouement, but the twist here is superb and so cleverly done – I loved how it all came together as Pinborough reveals what’s going on.  Clever, brilliant, and wholly original – I loved it.


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