Into the Water
by Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books

Literary sensations don’t come much bigger than Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (2015). A hypnotic, queasy psychological thriller that tapped into our inner voyeur, it broke records even before its disappointing Hollywood adaptation. Worldwide sales have topped 15 million copies, with three million in the United States alone.

Hawkins has now released the follow-up, Into the Water, which, if nothing else, doesn’t have the word “girl” in the title. If Hawkins was tempted to cash in again on this trend (Gone Girl, Girl with Various Tattoos), she would have needed “girls”, plural.

The new story describes the macabre deaths of several young women, all by drowning, all in the town of Beckford. While some of the “girls” died by their own hand, others were the victim of foul play. As the action begins, it is unclear which describes Danielle “Nel” Abbott, whose death ensures she doesn’t finish her book about the so-called Drowning Pool.

The first victim was Libby Seeton, who was drowned in 1679 during a witch trial. Her murder seems to unleash something wicked, misogynistic and otherworldly. Supposedly to be found in the northeast of England, Beckford is less a place than a state of mind. What details we learn (a school, shops, a church) are submerged beneath an atmosphere thick with despair, paranoia, secrets and barely contained violence.

Then again, this is England, and provincial small-town England at that. People who live in this self-consciously nice world cover up murder with politeness and cups of tea, smiling awkwardly as they plan violence.

If the number of victims has escalated in Hawkins’ second novel, so, too, have the narrators. Instead of Rachel Watson’s singular slippery perspective, we now have no fewer than 11 (including a posthumous Nel in her unfinished book). This fractured narrative fractures still further in the telling. As with The Girl on the Train, Into the Water is heavy with drinking, adultery, treachery, love and lies, all of which smudge our narrators’ perception of truth. Add in the simple instability of memory and even the simplest statement cannot be trusted.

At the start, this is bewildering, to say the least. Hawkins hurls us in at the deep end of her tale. Over a few short chapters (the average is about five pages), we meet Jules (Nel’s estranged sister), Josh (whose sister Katie was the Drowning Pool’s previous victim), Nickie (a medium/con artist), Mark (a local teacher going for a dip in the river) and Erin (Beckford’s new police investigator). What piques the curiosity, and also one’s irritated frustration, is the deliberate vagueness of the telling. We learn Mark has a dark romantic past, but he refuses to name names even within the privacy of his own third-person narration, refer­ring only to “the girl”. Approaching Beckford for the first time in years, Jules ponders: “The things I want to remember I can’t, and the things I try so hard to forget just keep coming.” It will take much of the novel’s 350 pages to reveal what these “things” are.

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Imprecision of this sort is a standard genre requirement, but repeated by Hawkins’ multiple narrators the nebulousness can feel clumsily contrived. Then again, this is England, and provincial small-town England at that. People who live in this self-consciously nice world cover up murder with politeness and cups of tea, smiling awkwardly as they plan violence.

Hawkins understands this tendency to silence, and also how it crosses generational divides. There is the omertà of the teenager, which creates intense pacts exactly to exclude the uncomprehending old. She is similarly alive when tracing how secrets endure and solidify over time. This, too, is a very English habit – turning a blind eye to untruths so that they hide in plain sight, even within the most intimate community or family.

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Into the Water’s best example are the Hendersons, ruled with a rod of iron by fading patriarch Patrick. “This is about putting all that business behind us,” he informs, or possibly orders, his daughter-in-law Helen. “Business” is another euphemism, like “girl” or “things”, that covers a multitude of sins, none of which Patrick cares to name even to the closest family member.

Beckford is small enough that everyone is effectively family, linked by blood, marriage and loss. Nel’s death triggers complex ripples of grief. The case is handled by Patrick’s son, Sean, whose own mother died in the Drowning Pool. Lena, Nel’s daughter, was also best friends with Katie, the previous person to drown in Beckford’s most notorious water feature.

The slow, moody establishing shots of Into the Water’s first half ensure that the second is packed with revelation as tongues long held start to flap. Some revelations are clunky, to put it mildly: a somewhat ham-fisted enigma surrounding the initials “LS”. But Hawkins handles the shifts in gear capably enough. In any case, the sheer relief one feels when the murk finally clears keeps the pages turning.

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More impressively, the protracted set-up makes one fundamentally interested in the characters themselves. The chapters feel preternaturally short, edited to give a constant sense of cliffhanger urgency, but the cumulative effect is more considered. Into the Water does not read like a plot-driven potboiler. Hawkins’ cast frustrates but it also entices, some­times through first-person narration (whose present tense suits the unhinged passions of Lena, for example), but also through an intimate third person that still allows access to an individual’s mind. This inspires Hawkins’ best writing. Nickie, the strange old crone who claims to talk to dead people, injects much-needed verve and even humour into proceedings.

Most powerful of all is Louise, Katie’s mother, whose emotional scars are reopened by Nel’s death: first, by dredging up memories of her daughter’s unhappy end; then by presenting painful new information about Katie’s final days. Hawkins’ writing about her unceasing misery is tough and chillingly true. She is packing up her daughter’s clothes when she is suddenly overcome by fresh stabs of grief: “Her vision blurred and she tried to think of something to stop the tears coming, she tried to find some image on which to fix her mind’s eye, and so she thought of Nel’s body, broken in the water, and she took what comfort she could from that.”

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Into the Water seems unlikely to repeat the sales feats of The Girl on the Train. That was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and anyway Into the Water feels too strange and unsettling, too loose and baggy for widespread appeal. Of course, that didn’t stop the Blair Witch, but still.

What stays with you after the end is not the resolution of a tantalising puzzle, which doesn’t prove too hard to guess, but the sobering portrait of women routinely abused, violated, brutalised and killed. This cruelty is not otherworldly but everyday, in schools, workplaces and homes. With such ordinary motivations for horror, who needs witchcraft any more?