Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel, Insomnia, has all the elements of a brilliant thriller, be it suspense, a plot twist, action, fast pace, or moments of anxiety and fear. Her previous novel, Behind Her Eyes, is now a major Netflix series of the same name starring Simone Brown, Tom Bateman, Robert Aramayo, and Eve Hewson. Both these novels have established Pinborough’s reputation as a writer focusing on the mysteries of the mind and enriching it further by adding the supernatural element, which leaves the reader astounded and confused. Let’s have a look at the plot of Insomnia to get a better idea.
‘Insomnia’ Plot Summary
The protagonist Emma Bournett Averell is a reputed divorce lawyer and is admired by many because of her success and her looks. She has gained quite a few enemies in her workplace for the same reasons. She is running for the position of partner in the firm that she works for, meaning she has to double her efforts, spending more time in her office with her boss and clients than being at home with her family. She is married to Robert Averell, who is a stay-at-home dad, taking care of the house and their two children, Chloe, who is 17, and Will, who is 5. Right from the beginning, Emma seems to be quite frustrated, partly because she is not sleeping well. There are other reasons as well, like Robert not doing the household chores properly. Her 40th birthday is almost here, and she seems to be bothered about that too. In her office, she receives a text from her elder sister Phoebe telling her to come to the hospital quickly, and soon we get to know that behind Emma’s sorted life lurks a murky past that neither her husband nor her children know of. Phoebe and Emma’s mother, Patricia Bournett, was arrested and admitted to a psychiatric ward for the criminally insane on her 40th birthday, the reason being that she tried to kill her older child Phoebe by smothering her with a pillow. This incident of Patricia trying to smother Phoebe is revealed much later in the novel. What Emma constantly hints at is that her mother had done something terrible that had changed their lives forever. After the incident, both children grew up in different foster homes, with Emma staying with Phoebe for only a while when she studied law at the university. It was then that Emma met Robert, got pregnant with Chloe, and decided to settle down. Phoebe, on the other hand, never quite started a family and gradually drifted away from Emma, only contacting her when she was in the country.
At present when Emma reaches the hospital, she gets to know that Phoebe has been here for a while and has been visiting their old, dying, and “mad” mother. Phoebe suggests that Emma should meet their mother and try to confront her “fears” instead of running away from them to which Emma reacts horribly and leaves. It turns out that Emma had always been very scared of turning 40. It’s not because she would be turning old, but because she felt that turning 40 would also make her like her mother. Her mother, Patricia, would whisper to her when she was little that she has inherited the same ‘mad’ blood that she and her grandaunt had. It’s something that every second child in her family had. Phoebe was afraid of turning 40 too, but she is not the one their mother said would go crazy. Phoebe was the first child after all. Soon after the incident at the hospital, we find Emma awake every night and doing weird things like constantly checking the locks on the doors, looking outside the window to see if anyone was outside, checking in on her children, and sitting in front of the cupboard below the stairs for a long time muttering numbers, which her mother would too. During the daytime, she would be tired, often experiencing a complete blackout.
Meanwhile, one of her ex-client’s wives, Miranda Stockwell, threatens her for having ruined her life completely, and Will seems to be having a hard time at school, wetting himself first and then sketching scary images of a woman trying to smother him in his bed with a pillow while also writing the word “Mummy” repeatedly. Emma thinks that it is Phoebe who has to do something with these images whereas Robert feels that it is Emma who is doing something, unconsciously of course which is scaring the wits out of Will. As her birthday looms closer, Emma decides to finally meet her mother, and when she does, the woman, who had actually been unconscious and in a vegetative state for a while now, opens her eyes and grabs her wrist. Scared, Emma runs away, and soon Phoebe calls in to let her know that their mother had passed away right after Emma left, suggesting she might have something to do with their mother’s death.
At a dinner with Miranda Stockwell’s husband and her boss, Emma receives a call from her husband stating that the police are at her house and want to speak to her. The police tell her that they too think Emma has something to do with her mother’s death, and Robert and Chloe are meanwhile shocked at the news of Emma’s mother being alive for all these days. Both Phoebe and Emma had told Robert that their mother had died when they were young. Robert demands an explanation, and at night when she gets up to follow her nighttime routine, he gets hold of her, threatening her to be away from Will and not to scare him. Emma, all the while, feels that Phoebe is involved in this somehow, and when she is arrested for the false accusation of her killing her mother, she becomes even more sure that Phoebe is doing this deliberately because she is jealous and wants to break apart her family. Robert soon orders her to leave the house and stay away from the children. Emma also finds out that Chloe is having an affair with one of their friends, Julian, who is already married and is 37.
Confused and overwhelmed with everything going on, Emma breaks down and starts sharing whatever she is going through with a nurse named Caroline, whom she hardly knew. Caroline had once come to Emma’s house to return her wallet, which she had dropped in a parking space. They both meet again in a medicine shop, and Emma, feeling safe and secure in her company, tries to strike up a friendship soon, telling her every minute detail of her life, but this is where Emma went wrong. Little did she know that Caroline was actually the person who was trying to mess up things for her. She is the daughter of the first couple who wanted to adopt Emma when she was little.
The morning they were on their way to take Emma, they met a car accident, the father dying there and the mother becoming suffering paralysis after that. Caroline had always blamed Emma for the car accident and wanted to take revenge. All the times that Emma thought she was losing her mind by acting like her mother, she was actually seeing the future. It turns out that both her mother Patricia and her child Will could see the future. The numbers Patricia muttered were not numbers, but the time and the sketches that Will drew weren’t something that Phoebe had told him to draw, but something that he saw and then drew in order to make himself feel better. Soon, Phoebe is pushed in front of a car, and Emma is blamed again for the accident. But on the night of her 40th birthday, she finally realizes what has been happening and who is behind it. She saves her family from the wrath of Caroline, who was determined to finish them all. She hits Caroline in the head with a golf club, hard enough to knock her out completely.
The story ends with Emma stating that she and Robert have gotten a divorce, but the kids have taken it quite well. Will is much better and happier, and Chloe is out of her previous relationship and currently dating a guy who is her age. Phoebe is seeing Darcy, Emma’s criminal lawyer friend, and Robert is finally opening a bar. Caroline is in a vegetative state and is charged by the police with trying to murder not just Emma and her family but a lot of other older women too. Emma has opened her own company, and several people are coming to her with their cases. She is finally seen looking out of the window, thinking that she would say yes if somebody else asked her out because nothing bad could come of it after all.
See more: ‘Insomnia’ Book Review: A Fast-Paced Thriller Novel By Sarah Pinborough