MAY 31, 2017
IN 2015, Paula Hawkins’s debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, became one of those Big Deal Books in the world of psychological suspense. If you are one of the few people who have not read it (or seen the movie), it’s about a woman who has lost everything — her marriage, her job, her sense of self and purpose — and spends most of her time drunk, experiencing severe blackouts. When a local woman goes missing, she inserts herself into the investigation, alcohol-clouded judgment causing her to confuse memory and reverie, discovering she may be more involved in the disappearance than she remembers. One of the most appealing things about the book is the way Hawkins uses the unreliability of her character’s perceptions to destabilize the reader, who is forced to sift through the contradictions and memory gaps in order to find the truth.
The much-anticipated Into the Water also employs the device of dislocating the reader with conflicting information and revisits some of the themes central to The Girl on the Train — memory, self-delusion, perception — but it can’t precisely be classified as a mystery novel. Although the plot features suspicious deaths and criminal investigations, there are many other elements explored here, the presence of which diffuse the narrative drive into something shaped less like a page-turning whodunnit than a novel in the vein of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, using crime and its accompanying secrets as an opportunity to explore relationships between individuals, families, and communities.
The setting is the small English town of Beckford, Northumberland, where, as in small towns the world over, the lives of inhabitants collide and overlap intimately, private misfortunes are public knowledge, and outsiders are viewed with suspicion. Beckford is also home to the Drowning Pool, a section of river running beneath a sheer cliff, in which many women throughout the town’s history have met their deaths through accident, suicide, murder, or — in one case — a 17th-century witch trial. It has become a piece of the town’s dark mythology — “a place to get rid of troublesome women.”
“People turned a blind eye, though, didn’t they? No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day.”
The blind eye conceit is extended to the town itself. As placid as the water concealing hundreds of years’ worth of corpses and secrets, the town covers its own secrets well: its unhappy marriages, abuse, affairs, longings, lies, crimes, and the fates of its victimized women.
The novel opens following the death of Nel Abbott, a woman with roots in Beckford who moved back to the town to write a book about the history of the Drowning Pool, which had fascinated her since childhood. Excerpts from Nel’s unpublished manuscript — part local history, part memoir — appear throughout the book as she reimagines the deaths of specific women, examines events from her own life, and romanticizes the phenomenon, evoking a sorority of suffering that binds the victims of the waters. She writes,
Some say the women left something of themselves in the water; some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters.
Nel’s project made her unpopular with residents whose loved ones — mothers, sisters, daughters, wives — died in that water, and who might have sinister reasons for wanting the book suppressed. When Nel herself becomes one of the pool’s victims, many feel relief, even joy; but there are no indications of a struggle to cast suspicion on her death, and it gets treated as an accident or a possible suicide.
Nel’s long-estranged younger sister, Jules, arrives in Beckford to identify the body and look after Nel’s 15-year-old daughter, Lena, suddenly becoming responsible for a niece she has never met. Lena has just lost not only her mother, but also her best friend, Katie, who died in the Drowning Pool weeks before, also an apparent suicide.
Jules is an odd character. Timid and awkward, she has residual bulimia from an overweight childhood and a complicated relationship with her deceased sister, with whom she had not actually spoken since their mother’s funeral years ago, but to whom she speaks — aloud — throughout the novel, appearing to others to be talking to herself. She is also, in true Hawkins fashion, predisposed to short-term memory lapses.
“The things I want to remember I can’t, and the things I try so hard to forget just keep coming.”
Being back in Beckford, and meeting Lena — the spitting image of Nel in both appearance and temperament — brings back memories of the traumatic event that drove a wedge in their relationship during their teenage years, leading to Jules’s own near-death in the Drowning Pool, which does not hold the same tragically romantic appeal for her as it did for Nel.
So beautiful, everyone remarked upon the view, but they didn’t really see. They never opened the window and leaned out, they never looked down at the wheel, rotting where it stood, they never looked past the sunlight playing on the water’s surface, they never saw what the water really was, greenish-black and filled with living things and dying things.
The book gets off to a shaky start. The number of characters granted a point of view is a big problem, especially in the beginning, before we can gain our readerly bearings. The first 50 pages contain 12 short chapters from nine different points of view, without the courtesy of context, and feature names too easily confused at this early stage: Libby, Lena, Louise, Josh, Jules. Some of these chapters have dates attached, some do not; some are told in first person, some in third person; some are excerpts from Nel’s manuscript. It is overall a very disorienting introduction, requiring much flipping back to try to find a foothold. All told, there are 11 different characters given POV status, each with their own subplots, and it’s easy to get muddled. There isn’t much variation in narrative style here, so keeping the connections and backstories straight, remembering who knows what about whom, can be challenging — even to the characters themselves:
Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.
Once you get the characters straight, the struggle to figure out who can be trusted begins. The action takes place during the month following Nel’s death, and the perspective switches rapidly between characters, all of whom have personal axes to grind and sins to conceal. In the middle of these short, alternating segments are Nel’s manuscript chapters, detailing the watery deaths of women. I would have liked to see more of these excerpts, particularly ones set further back in history. Most of the examples are recent enough that they’re living memories to the residents of Beckford, but there’s a stronger point to be made about the ways in which women are labeled “problematic” throughout history that one or two more examples would have solidified nicely.
The deaths of Nel, Katie, and several other women are the centerpiece of the book, dredging up old secrets buried over time. Suspense is built with red herrings, coincidences, misunderstandings, miscommunication, and deliberate suppression of truth. Hawkins returns to the idea of the unreliability of memory, where painful memories are willfully or unconsciously submerged, and how childhood trauma can make a mind vulnerable to manipulation, or prone to flights of imagination as a coping mechanism, to fill in the gaps. And as several characters will learn, forgetting something doesn’t mean it can’t come back to hurt you.
There’s a lot to keep track of, a number of mysterious deaths and non-lethal secrets, and the way Hawkins handles her reveals varies: some are overt and declarative, some casually unveiled as incidental asides, and some are left entirely unwritten, where the reader has all the necessary clues to draw the logical conclusion without the handholding of a spotlighted reveal.
There are some missteps. The ultra-short chapters result in a fast pace, but switching points of view so quickly, and seemingly arbitrarily, compromises readers’ ability to immerse themselves in the story. The tone is also uneven. There is a climactic scene that should be very harrowing, but it is downplayed and stripped of all tension, rendering it conversational instead of confrontational, and the final showdown deflates in beige shades of cranky exhaustion. However, the closing chapter delivers a wonderful firecracker of an ending.
I suspect that this book will be less of a crowd-pleaser than her previous thriller. Fans who are expecting something just like her debut are going to find this less flashy and, despite its pacing, more meditative and languid than the almost compulsively readable The Girl on the Train. While it’s not a wholly successful novel, it’s commendable that Hawkins was willing to deviate from a guaranteed moneymaking formula and spread her authorial wings — which is a risk worth taking — and I’m very interested to see what she does next.