Into the Water.
New York, New York. Penguin Random House.
May 2, 2017.
388 pages. $28.00
The water isn’t all that is murky in Paula Hawkins new novel, Into the Water. Hawkins, the author of New York Times bestselling novel The Girl on the Train, has mastered the formula for a great mystery-thriller, albeit a twisted, confusing, but always entertaining formula. With her latest novel, Hawkins serves up an interesting but convoluted storyline that’s ripples last long after the last page is turned.
If Hawkins’ purpose was to entertain her readers, she accomplished it. If she was attempting to provide some sort of commentary on the societal prejudice that affects women, Hawkins started to open the door, but closed it quickly. Into the Water is a textbook summer read that leaves its readers with more questions than answers. Those questions add up as readers delve deeper into the 388 page book with no relief except one; the final page.
Into the Water, follows in The Girl on the Train’s confusing, over-plotted footsteps, but almost to a whole new level. Set in a rural British town, Beckford, the novel follows the town’s “troublesome women.” Women who, for centuries, have ended up murdered in the river, or the “drowning pool” as the locals call it. The whole of the novel follows not just one murder, but multiple, dating from all the way back to the 17th century to modern day. What starts off slow and confusing, picks up speed until the pages can’t be turned fast enough. Each chapter, told by various townspeople, adds more to the perplexing problems that faces the citizens of Beckford. Every narrator is somehow connected to a murdered woman, whether it’s an orphaned daughter whose mother’s murder is the core of the novel, to the troubled police officer who lost his mother to the mysterious drowning pool when he was a child, to the nutty, old psychic. The cast of characters are all, at some point, the perfect suspect making the novel that only spans the course of a month, feel long and drawn out until the fast, climactic ending.
The Hawkins who wrote the ingeniously unreliable narrator, Rachel, in The Girl on the Train, is no longer. Rachel’s unsteady, psychotic behavior is nothing compared to the antics of the characters in the maze that is Into the Water. Perhaps it’s the throwing of characters at the reader with little time to process who is who. And what’s worse is that distinguishing between the hair color of one character to the clothing of another, is nearly impossible. The women in the story do have one thing in common though, they surround themselves with drama, whether it is being the victim of rape, an abusive marriage, or losing a child. But if Hawkins accomplishes one thing with this novel it’s that it fits snugly next to other thriller novels of its genre.
As previously mentioned, Hawkins knows how to write a thriller, and her writing style exhibits that. What was once a mysterious, thrilling voice in The Girl on the Train is gone, as plain, dull descriptions abound in Into the Water. Even the dialogue falls flat, a disappointing addition to a novel whose twisted plot was altogether fascinating. There was no clear protagonist nor antagonist, a fact that added various facets to the novel. Foreshadowing, a device used by mystery writers to an absurd amount, was refreshingly not at the forefront of Hawkins novel. Instead, a mixture of symbolism, diction, and very little characterization often took its place.
The plot was, at its core, an interesting and brilliant idea. But, it did fall flat as characters were thrown together, some from long before the modern day setting. What didn’t work was that there wasn’t much context for the novel. There was no lead up, just an explanation after the fact, and it left the reader grasping for straws trying to connect all the various, interloping dots. At the base of the story is this circuitous cycle of “troublesome women” ending up dead in the “drowning pool,” and the events that occur when these women die do in fact find some connection points, however there isn’t enough context for the reader to make that connection on their own. Libby, a woman accused of being a witch in the 17th century, narrates the same way that Lena, the daughter of yet another “troublesome woman,” does. And it doesn’t work. Without context in a story like this, it’s hard to find a reason to keep turning the pages, even if the plot itself is entertaining.
The concept of “troublesome women” is one that outlasts the novel. Everyone who reads it knows of troublesome women, or may be themselves a troublesome woman. Hawkins scratches the surface of a much deeper issue by using the way in which these townspeople react to these women to add a little but nowhere near enough, commentary on women as a whole and the ways in which society views them. It’s an intriguing plot line that does not get near enough attention amidst the family and town dramas that dominate the novel.
Hawkins does know how create a novel that, even if it may not be the best, entices readers to buy it. The plot of Into the Water is what really gives the novel life, even if the characters that are in the small town of Beckford weave a maze that readers can often not find their way out of. Ultimately it’s an entertaining novel, even if the literary merit that it could have is in its most infantile stages.