I am one of the many people for whom Paula Hawkins’ phenomenal first novel, The Girl on The Train, was game-changing. I have been a fan of mystery/thriller fiction for a number of years, but I have always carefully selected the novels and authors I choose to read; my particularity stemming from a fussiness about an author’s style. The Girl on The Train was so popular, both critically and amongst the general population, bookworms or not, that I had to pick it up, and I was blown away. I read the novel virtually in one sitting, and when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it, my mind whirring away in an attempt to unpick the tightly knitted plot, and decipher the fascinating characters who kept so much information close to their chests. I therefore had quite high hopes for Hawkins’ second novel, Into the Water, putting a reminder in my diary to order it from my local library on the day it was published. As my name crept slowly up the library’s waiting list (about 80 people got there before me on publication day), the tension mounted and I could barely wait to be immersed in Hawkins’ latest masterpiece.
Paula Hawkins’ success lies in her mastery of storytelling – the pure, simple elements of plot and intriguing characters define her writing, making her distinct from the clutter of similar novels which are often trying to cram too much into a few hundred pages. Hawkins spins webs of suspense within the pages of Into the Water; lives are entangled, connections are made, threads are broken. In summary, Into the Water is the story of Jules Abbott, who returns to her childhood home of Beckford, a fictional town in the north of England, following a tragic event. However, the novel is deeply complex, and Jules’ return to the quaint town causes things to shift and dark secrets to be uncovered – there is more to this story than first appears.
At the centre of Beckford, and of Into the Water, is a river which eventually pools below some cliffs, in a spot affectionately known by locals as the Drowning Pool. Many have taken their lives at this particular point in the river and the history of Beckford is littered with suicides and suspicious deaths – mostly of women. The river is therefore a sinister force, a dark figure running through the novel, its influence apparent on the inhabitants of the town. Jules fears it because of associated memories she has, but she finds herself inexorably drawn to it, as do many of the characters. Secrets are buried beneath the river bed, and truths are waiting to be exposed. Drowning is a particularly feminine cause of death in the novel – there are nods to Ophelia and her romanticised image in the Millais painting – and Hawkins explores why this is, and what has led so many women to meet their end in the river.
Writing for Dead Good in May 2017, Paula Hawkins expressed her affinity for ‘women both troubled and troubling’, and this is a theme throughout Into the Water. Jules herself is a troubled woman, her sister, Nel, could be deemed ‘troubling’. In fact, there’s a cast of Beckford women, both living and dead, whose existence disrupts the order of life in the town, and who disturb the layers of silt that have long buried dark truths. There are many voices of women past and present throughout the novel; they are strong and have endured the test of time and the attempts of men to silence them. Women in the novel are branded as whores, liars, frauds, murderers, but Hawkins gives them a platform from which to speak, using other women as their mouthpiece.
The novel is fast-paced and thrillingly gripping. The river and the chilling, almost supernatural elements surrounding the mysterious deaths pull the reader along, but Hawkins is careful not to reveal too much. There are twists and turns that are at times obvious, at others gasp-inducing, which are aided by the style of the narrative. As in The Girl on The Train, the story is told by several characters, each with their own unique voice, motive and dark past. This provides a fragmented feel to the novel, encouraging the reader to don their own figurative deerstalker hat, and to critically review each character and their story. Memory is a key plot device; it is revealed to be unreliable, easily damaged and clumsily patched together. Memories can be created, imagined, planted, disrupting the truth and muddying the waters of the mind. The truth is painful for many in the novel; some bury it, some re-imagine it, some lash out against it and those who seek it. Hawkins is skilled at delving into the psychological depths of both her characters and her readers, chipping away at their resolve and finding chinks in their carefully constructed armour.
Into the Water is engaging and mysterious, yet remains wholly visceral, the cold, dark, unyielding waters of the river sending chills down the reader’s spine. If you’re searching for a novel that will grip you, shake you and leave you gasping for breath, then look no further.