Don’t Turn Around (2020) – Jessica Barry

Title:Don’t Turn Around
Author:Jessica Barry
Publisher/s:Harvill Secker/Penguin Random House
Date published:2020
Star rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Penguin Random House South Africa kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“Wasn’t living under the constant threat of danger just a part of being a woman in this world?”

In Jessica Barry’s disturbing thriller two women from very different backgrounds and very different places in their life are brought together on a terrifying trip from Lubbock, Texas to Albuquerque whilst being pursued by a man from their past. In Don’t Turn Around both woman are convinced the pursuer is after her, and it is not until the heart-racing conclusion that the reader learns the astonishing truth.

Cait is a twenty-five year old writer working as a bartender to pay the bills because right now her writing only pays sporadically. She’s also recently picked up a job as a discreet driver for Sisters of Service, which helps women arrive safely at various abortion clinics. Though Cait would rather be writing for a living, and would prefer something better than the dingy apartment she currently rents, her job at the bar usually pays well and working as a driver allows her to feel as though she is doing something worthwhile. After a one-night stand with a local up-and-coming singer leaves Cait feeling disappointed and despondent, she feels inspired and writes a scathing piece naming the singer and submits it to a struggling online magazine. The piece goes viral and though she is paid and the magazine is delighted to have so much sudden interest on their site, there are also plenty of internet trolls baying for Cait’s blood.

Rebecca is in her thirties and married to Richard who has always had ambitious dreams of running for congress. They moved to Lubbock to further his career, and so far Rebecca’s own dreams of teaching have taken a back-seat. After several miscarriages, Rebecca discovers she is pregnant again, but what should be a joyous time for the expectant couple is instead a desperate and heart- breaking nightmare that ends in Rebecca climbing into the seat of Cait’s Jeep one night, and the two women heading for Albuquerque.

Threats from strangers on the internet have made Cait paranoid and constantly looking over her shoulder. Rebecca on the other hand is terrified that her husband will find out about her plan, and wonders how far he is prepared to go to keep his reputation uncomplicated by a scandal. Both women are in pretty terrifying situations, and when an unidentified man starts chasing them across the empty and open roads, becoming increasingly more threatening and more violent in his pursuit, the women are forced to open up to one another and become united in their fear.

Barry’s novel tackles some very controversial and poignant issues in contemporary culture. Not only does it tackle the realities of trying to have an abortion in America, and specifically in the state of Texas, where it is still illegal, it also brings up the very real fear of simply being a woman. This could be construed as a feminist novel, and I think that would be unfair. Both Cait and Rebecca’s issues are not isolated, and despite the thriller-type setting and atmosphere, the villains are not unknown. Though the internet is filled with dark and twisted plots, its influence and it’s very real link with very real people looms over Cait and Rebecca’s stories. Whilst Rebecca is forced to play the role of a congressman’s perfect wife and perfect mother, her life behind closed doors is anything but perfect. Cait’s greatest fear at this point is people realizing who she really is, and that is frightening enough to keep her moving.

“There was no plan. There was only the pounding of their hearts and the rush of blood and the feverish will to survive”

In the claustrophobic confines of Cait’s Jeep the two women are being slowly pursued by a man, by men, by incels and internet trolls, and anti-abortion protesters and extremists. The women are being pursued by a notion and an ideal that neither of them have lived up to nor promote, and mostly they are being pursued by their pasts. Every time they look back they either see the empty and dark roads of a Trump-era America, or they see the headlights of a very real, very tangible man whom they both may know, or neither of them know – at this point it no longer matters. What matters is getting away. What matters is surviving.

Barry’s novel is everything I didn’t know I wanted it to be. At some point along the terrifying journey the reader forgets or no longer seems concerned with the identity of the man chasing down Cait and Rebecca, and instead it just becomes important that they live. This is a very important book, an astonishingly good thriller, and a narrative told over and over again that just never seems to be heard.

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