An inauspicious river runs through the town of Beckford; women are drawn to its water and many have succumbed to its depths. Its latest victim is Nel Abbott, a single mother who was compiling a book about the Drowning Pool – ‘a place to get rid of troublesome women’. But it’s not the river that’s the villain of this story, it’s the residents of the small town through which it flows.
Paula Hawkins knows how to hook readers and her second novel, Into the Water, the follow-up to the international bestseller The Girl on the Train, has a compelling premise – a mystery about what really happened to these ‘troublesome women’ and an exploration of how memories can contradict the truth. Did Nel take her own life, like schoolgirl Katie Whittaker did earlier that year? Or was she pushed?
The town’s history is filled with gruesome fables of these women – from an accused witch bound by men and thrown into the pool in the 1600s, to a wife in the 1920s who drowned herself after slaughtering her husband. Then there are the rumours of a little boy who watched his mother jump from the cliff and into the Drowning Pool.
Into the Water has a lot of point-of-view characters. Nel’s estranged younger sister Jules Abbott returns to Beckford to care for Nel’s now orphaned daughter Lena. Jules’s narration is directed at Nel, whom she never forgave for a past wrong that occurred when they were teenagers. Lena is headstrong and proves to be a handful, and bursts onto the page demanding to know: ‘what the f**k do you think you’re doing?’
Then there’s Katie’s grieving mother, Louise Whittaker and little brother, Josh; Mark Henderson, a teacher who’s intent on escaping Beckford as soon as possible; resident psychic Nickie Sage, who is certain Nel didn’t kill herself; the Detective Inspector Sean Townsend, who’s investigating Nel’s death, his bland wife Helen, who has a peculiar relationship with Sean’s father, Patrick, a misogynist; and Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan who arrives from London and wonders why there isn’t a barrier on the cliff edge overlooking the Drowning Pool (but really – why isn’t there a barrier on the cliff edge?) Phew! With so many characters, it’s difficult to form connections with, or empathise with any of them, particularly Jules, who is a bit of a wet fish.
Into the Water is not the page-turner that The Girl on the Train was. It treads slowly and carefully through the storyline, quietly and pensively unravelling the lies, misunderstandings and misinterpretations beleaguering the residents of Beckford.
Hawkins has established an elaborate plot, cleverly interlocking the lives of her cast of characters together – all of whom have their part to play as each of their actions, even those that are seemingly small and of little consequence, have significant repercussions as the narrative heads towards its devastating conclusion. Although the clues required to solve the main puzzle are there from the very beginning, the final outcome is not obvious, but it is plausible. The ending feels like a sigh, a breath long held in and finally released in the very last sentence.
Inevitably, as The Girl on the Train became a Hollywood film, it’s likely this too will find its way to the screen, but would work best as a mini-series, similar to the suspicious small town portrayed in Broadchurch or the eerie and downright bizarre The Kettering Incident set in a Tasmanian coastal town.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is published by Doubleday.