Into the Water

Written by Paula Hawkins — After the runaway success of Paula Hawkins’ debut domestic thriller, The Girl on the Train, we suspect the author was worried about derailing with her second. Who wouldn’t? Expectations are crazily high after TGOTT’s 18 million-plus sales and Hollywood film and we couldn’t blame her for playing safe and keeping on the same track.

Instead she bravely opted to pen something very different, an ambitious, layered thriller told from the multiple viewpoints of 11 unreliable narrators who slowly reveal their secrets.

The premise at the heart of Into the Water is strong and should be compelling. Nel, a free spirit, photographer and writer has been found dead after apparently jumping off a cliff into the murky depths of the Drowning Pool, a notorious suicide spot where witches were historically ‘swam’ in a bend in a Northumbrian river. Nel had been asking too many questions about the suspicious watery deaths of women in the recent and distant past. Her troubled teenage daughter Lena, who is given to serial stalking out of rooms and continuously biting her curled lip, insists her mother committed suicide. Nel’s estranged sister Julia (Jules) doesn’t believe this for a moment and is driven by guilt to stick around in the damp town of her youth, Beckford, and find out what happened to her sister. It emerges that Jules had ignored phone calls from Nel, as she blamed her for a harrowing childhood incident.

Hawkins used unreliable narrators effectively in Girl on the Train, but this time there’s a whole chorus of sly storytellers and too many of them. From the get-go we have misleading folk jostling for our attention though brief chapters, breathlessly giving their point of view without much of an explanation as to who they are. I constantly turned back the pages to place the ensemble cast, who are drawn to the magnetic evil of the Drowning Pool and all the women who have met their end in its sinister depths. I wrote a list with arrows to connect them and considered populating an Excel spreadsheet. Hard work.

And there’s the pool with its own tales to tell – no, really – about its use to drown troublesome women, like Nel.

Casting also includes Louise, whose daughter Katie was a friend of Lena’s who died in the pool just weeks before Nel; Josh, Katie’s disturbed brother; Mark the handsome, but too-good-to-be true schoolteacher; Erin, a police sergeant who is saner than the rest and thinks Beckford and all its inhabitants are weird; her haunted boss Sean the inspector who is from Beckford; his cruel father Patrick who drowns a pregnant cat (yes he’s the worst); Helen, Sean’s plain schoolmarm wife who has much to hide; and Nickie the cliché-ridden old crone and pyschic who is descended from young Libby, the drowned ‘witch’.

There’s an attempt to differentiate between the similar voices by the use of first and third person and even second, when Jules talks to the dead Nel. The pool speaks to us in gushy italics and Josh without quote marks.

Like the abundance of linked characters, both alive and dead, there’s also a plethora of crimes associated with the deaths – abusive relationships, illicit affairs, rape, murders and underage sex. I love a twisty dark tale, but the Gothic hints and muttered warnings about supernatural forces from Nickie seem more like cartoon rants than curses.

There are big themes to admire here about memory and its falseness, familial relationships and wrongs against women that I would have liked explored more deeply.

I became mildly gripped about halfway through as I engaged with the cast, but there were so many reveals and red herrings that the suspense had been drowned long before the final big reveal.

For a powerful psychological thriller try In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings or 13 Minutes by Sarah Pinborough. 

Doubleday
Print/Kindle/iBook
£7.99

CFL Rating: 2 Stars

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