Authors of mystery novels and domestic thrillers tend to follow an old etiquette rule: in polite society, avoid talk of religion and politics. That may sound quaint, but many of us read these sorts of books with the expectation that our minds will be troubled by no more than the crisis on the page. “Don’t Turn Around,” the sophomore effort by Jessica Barry (“Freefall“), a pseudonym for a former publishing industry insider who now lives in Portland, entwines a tale of suspense with topical subject matter, and the result shows that she has both the courage of her convictions and an impressive cut to her imagination.
As “Don’t Turn Around” opens, it’s about midnight, and 25-year-old Cait Monaghan is parked in her Jeep in front of a McMansion in Lubbock, Texas; the house “wasn’t what she was used to, though by now she knew that she should expect anything.” Cait, who grew up poor in Waco, is there to pick up a stranger named Rebecca McRae. “I know you’re nervous,” Cait tells Rebecca, who has a decade on Cait, when they’re on the road, “but we’re out of the danger zone now.” Not quite, Cait.
Cait and Rebecca are undertaking a six-hour drive from Lubbock to Albuquerque — a distance of 322 miles — for a reason that Barry is tantalizingly slow to reveal. A hundred miles in, the women stop at a diner, where Cait notices a man at the counter staring at Rebecca. Not long after they’ve resumed their trip, a truck bears down on them, passes them, and then hits the brakes, almost forcing Cait to slam into the vehicle. The provocation continues. When the cat-and-mousing is finally over, Rebecca asks Cait if she thinks the driver is the guy from the diner; Cait says it’s probably just thrill-seeking teenagers. Sure, Cait.
The stakes are clear as soon as “Don’t Turn Around” is out of the gate: will Cait and Rebecca make it to Albuquerque? Tack on the questions of why Rebecca is fleeing Lubbock and whether and why the driver of the truck is after Cait, Rebecca, or both, and the reader will gladly stay buckled up for the bumpy ride. The novel’s roving point of view bounces around in time, allowing Barry, maestro-like, to mete out just enough of each woman’s history to satisfy the reader while reserving the biggest reveals for miles down the road.
A road trip story can offer a golden opportunity for comic set pieces, but “Don’t Turn Around,” like “Thelma and Louise” before it (and which Barry’s book can’t help but evoke), is a sobering reminder that women on the open road are vulnerable to dangers that most men need not fear. Of course, it’s also true that when Cait and Rebecca have flexed their independence back at home, they have had less than the full support of the men in their lives. It’s not even remotely a compliment when, in a scene set in the past, a male character says of Rebecca that she’s “got a little bit of Hillary in her.”
Novels that deal with front-page subjects run the risk of becoming dated; we can only hope that one day the issues with which the shrewd and dauntless Barry engages in “Don’t Turn Around” become yesterday’s news.
Nell Beram is a former Atlantic staff editor and coauthor of “Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies.”