Jessica Barry, Don’t Turn Around (2021)
Review by Lee Horsley
“Wasn’t living under the constant threat of danger just a part of being a woman in this world?”
Jessica Barry’s Don’t Turn Around is a gripping, swiftly paced female road novel. Her evocative prose propels us into the lives of two strong, determined women, thrown together on a nightmarish journey, facing dangers that neither of them anticipated.
One of the women, Cait Monaghan, is helping out at an Austin, Texas, organisation called Sisters of Mercy, set up to aid women in crisis. Having been eking out a living as a bartender and occasional journalist, Cait has crises of her own to contend with, shadowing and complicating her commitment to helping others. She takes on the task of secretly driving Rebecca McRae, wife of an up-and-coming politician, across a desolate part of northern Texas and into New Mexico, to a clinic in Albuquerque. The two women have never met before and are from very different worlds:
“Cait looked at the woman next to her wiping tears from her eyes and wondered, for the first time, if maybe they would have been friends had the circumstances been different. If maybe she liked this woman after all. She brushed away the thought. It didn’t matter if she liked Rebecca or not. She wasn’t here to make friends.”
Travelling in a beat-up old jeep, the two are in danger almost from the outset, under pressure from an unknown assailant and terrified as they are blinded by headlights in their rear view mirror, a truck charging towards them and trying to force them off the road. The action of Don’t Turn Around only occasionally pauses for reflection. But the tightly wound plot at every point brings vividly to the fore the plight of women in a world of male aggression. The glimpses of the mental world of their pursuer leave us in no doubt about the deep misogyny driving the men who have made their lives hellishly frightening:
”Now that he had been released, he wanted to revel in his freedom. He wanted to look into her eyes and see his own power reflected there. To see that he was a god and that she was nothing in the face of him. This is your purpose on this earth, and you are fulfilling it.”
Beyond the deranged focus of a psychopathic mind, there is a wider world that seems increasingly determined to treat women themselves as the transgressors. Rebecca, the politician’s wife, reflects that “she no longer recognized the waters they were swimming in. The tides turned so quickly these days, sweeping everything familiar out to sea. Now she was out there, alone and drowning.” The bond the two women tentatively form under the extreme pressure of this alien, hostile world is all that gives them hope as they struggle to stay alive: “So, no, she wasn’t alone. She had a woman she’d met only the day before, but who she knew now would stay by her side…That’s what we women are here for, right? To save each other’s lives.”
Don’t Turn Around was written pseudonymously by an American writer who has lived and worked in London for over fifteen years. Her first crime novel, Look for Me, originally published as Freefall (2019), similarly demonstrated her ability to combine psychological tension with riveting action. Crimeculture looks forward to reviewing future high-octane feminist thrillers from Jessica Barry.