In January 2015, British author Paula Hawkins released The Girl on the Train. Little did she know what success it would have; smashing sales records and topping bestseller lists for months on end. Since, it has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, spawned a hugely successful film adaptation starring Emily Blunt, and has made Hawkins one of the biggest names in popular fiction. The question is: how does one follow that up?
With Into the Water, Hawkins has given it her best shot. Whether this novel – another entertaining, page-turning, psychological thriller – can bring Hawkins the same success as The Girl on the Train remains to be seen, but it has all the elements that made her previous novel so fiendishly gripping.
Nel Abbot is dead, and in the last days before her death she calls her sister Jules – who ultimately does not pick up, ignoring a plea for help with disastrous circumstances. They say Nell has jumped, thrown herself into the place they call the Diving Pool, but the young, ambitious female detective on the case, Erin, thinks otherwise.
In the small British town of Beckford, the Drowning Pool has a dark history, and Nel has been working on a manuscript that will unlock its secrets and unravel the mysteries of a series of female deaths and suicides. Hawkins keeps us suitably confused, tied up in a mass of characters – each of which with their own individual chapters and perspectives – and for the first quarter of the book moves slowly, drip-feeding us snippets of the history of the town and its residents, but never revealing enough to give the reader answers.
Unreliable narrators have become a familiar staple in psychological thrillers over the years and Hawkins follows the same plan that was put to such clever use in The Girl on the Train. Jules, hearing of her sister’s death, must return to the family home to look after Nel’s 15-year-old daughter Lena, who she has never met. Indeed, the estrangement from her family – because of perceived slights that are slowly revealed to us over the course of the book – is important, as Jules and Lena must get to know one another, and indeed trust each other, over time.
Elsewhere we have Sean Townsend, good cop of Brentford, struggling with his own demons. As he investigates Nel’s alleged suicide, Sean remembers that of his own mother, who he saw jump into the Diving Pool when he was just a child. Meanwhile, his wife Helen sleeps in another room and avoids his touch, and his father Patrick, the grizzled ex-cop, prowls the river, unable to rest.
Then we have Louise Whittaker, left devastated by her daughter Katie’s suicide, six months prior to Nel’s. Katie was Lena’s best friend in the world and her mother is convinced that the pair knew more than they let on. Katie is a happy, vivacious 15-year-old with her whole life ahead of her, so what tempted her to creep out late one night, fill her pockets with stones and ultimately give herself to the Diving Pool?
Hawkins intertwines narrative perspectives, time periods, flashbacks and manuscript entries, to tie the reader in knots. The language is compelling, the mysteries interesting enough to have the reader rattling through the pages in a quest for answers. At times Into the Water can become a bit too littered with characters and there is a feeling that the novel would have been improved with a little pruning and tightening of the reins.
Nevertheless, Hawkins hasn’t just stuck to the formula that made The Girl on the Train so successful – instead she has been a bit more ambitious, and Into the Water is better for its bigger scope, taking us through the history of a small town with a big secret at its heart.
Make no mistake about it: Hawkins has another summer blockbuster on her hands, and it would be no surprise to see it make a huge splash in the best-seller charts of 2017.
My thanks to Alison Barrow and Transworld/Doubleday for the ARC. Into the Water is released online and in all good bookstores on May 2.