A small-town tragedy that delves into relationships – familial, romantic, workplace and neighbourly.
Following the massive success of her bestselling novel The Girl on the Train, released in 2015, Paula Hawkins’ second novel, Into the Water falls into the going-to-read-it-regardless category for a lot of readers. But for those who missed the phenomenon of The Girl on the Train, or who saw the movie first and never went back to the book, Into the Water still proves a worthwhile read. Hawkins has gone for something similar, but also quite different.
In Into the Water landscape is key; specifically water. Small town Beckford has a river that runs throughout the narrative, figuratively and literally, as the motif that ties many townspeople’s stories together. We are introduced to the gravitas of the river with ‘The Drowning Pool’, one part of the river with a long history and a deep mystery.
Yet even with this encouraging premise, the book gets off to a slow start. Time-shifts between the short chapters are one contributor to this. Another is that the book features multiple narrators twisted around many plot lines, dissimilar to The Girl on the Train’s intense focus on three.
In Into the Water, Hawkins’ uses both first person and omniscient narrators. While again employing the unreliable narrator she so expertly applied in The Girl on the Train, these narrators take on a different kind of personal dishonesty, one that centres on denial, guilt and not having come to terms with the parts they or their loved ones played in the violent deaths of multiple women. Throughout the book, they doubt themselves, their memories, their feelings. With retrospect, they all wonder if they did the right thing – and what would have happened if they acted differently?
Jules Abbott is the sister of the drowned Nel Abbott. “I listened to the [phone] message, over and over,” she narrates, “and now that I was hearing it properly I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed before the slight breathlessness of your delivery, the uncharacteristic softness of your speech, hesitant, faltering. You were afraid.”
Jules fluctuates between hating her dead sister for a past misunderstanding and grieving for her, and as she navigates the mystery she begins to embody drowning herself. A police officer describes, “It’s hard to explain, but [Jules] seemed to be talking without making any sound. And I don’t mean that kind of noiseless sobbing either. It was strange. Her lips were moving as though she was saying something… and not just saying something, but talking to someone. Having a conversation.” This soundlessness permeates the narrative just as the deep darkness of the water does, and Jules continues to be a part of the water motif throughout the book.
Jules also describes other characters in a manner reminiscent of the drowned. “His palm was dry but his skin had an unhealthy sheen to it and there were greyish circles under his eyes”, she describes. Another police officer, Erin, who’s new to the town for the most recent drowning case, dreams about the water. She describes her nightmares using phrasing that augments Hawkins’ water theme: “feverishly”, “inky darkness”, “the kind of deep black that makes it impossible to see your hand in front of your face”.
The water becomes all-consuming for the characters. It symbolises fear: it’s the ultimate silencer. Yet for many of the water’s victims, the damage is wrought at the hands of men – and we don’t know who the “bad men” are for much of the novel.
This crescendo, when we find out “who done what”, doesn’t actually come at the end. But when we do find out, it’s no discouragement to keep reading – to find out how all these lives and damaged relationships resolve themselves in the wake of town-wide tragedy.
Women pay the price in this book. Hawkins gets into anti-patriarchy territory towards the end as Sean, the local police officer, describers The Drowning Pool as “a place of persecuted women, outsiders and misfits fallen foul of patriarchal edits.”
Hawkins’ analysis of psychological and physical abuse feels slightly lacking compared to how it’s explored in The Girl on the Train. However, and interestingly, Hawkins also explores the terrain of women vs. women. Nel Abbott’s daughter, Lena, says to her aunt Jules: “I don’t understand people like you who always choose to blame the woman. If there’s two people doing something wrong and one of them’s a girl, it’s got to be her fault, right?”
While possibly not as cleverly executed as The Girl on the Train, for readers looking for well-accomplished suspense with the engaging and effortless flow of Hawkins’ psychological thrillers, it’s all there. It’s not a groundbreaking book, but it’s an enjoyable thriller.