Paula Hawkins’ second thriller after the super-successful The Girl On The Train has been much awaited around the world. In Into The Water, she moves away from urban London to show us the secrets hidden by the town of Beckford and the mysterious river that runs through it.
Julia, who prefers to be called Jules, is forced to leave her well-ordered, predictable life in London when her estranged sister, Nel, is found dead, apparently having jumped into the river that has claimed the lives of many women before her. Nel leaves behind a sulky teenage daughter who has a few secrets of her own.
It is difficult to understand initially where Hawkins is trying to take her readers, as we are shown the thoughts of all the main characters, villain, victim or catalyst. Having around 10 narrators (if I counted right) can work for some stories, but not for one where it is essential that the suspense be maintained till the end. Events that are shocking revelations to the characters didn’t elicit more than a raised eyebrow from this reader. There is a lot of repetition, as characters recount to themselves and others what we have already worked out on our own.
The primary narrator, Jules, is a passive character who mostly waits for things to happen to her—I got the impression that she suffers from anxiety and/or trauma, but this is never really fleshed out. We are told briefly that she works in London and has been in at least one romantic relationship, but she is never shown working or even interacting with anyone apart from the people in Beckford, making her rather fuzzy around the edges (this works up to a point, as Jules’ unreliable memory plays a large part in the proceedings).
The Girl On The Train also suffered from some of these faults, but they were less visible owing to its limited canvas. Like that book, the narrative weaknesses of Into The Water are also redeemed somewhat by the author’s obvious good intentions—her overarching concern is the violence visited upon women over generations, be it in the form of witch trials, rape or domestic abuse. She succeeds in building up a Gothic atmosphere—if you’re reading it at night while alone in the house, you may feel like checking over your shoulder.
Hawkins makes it clear in her sophomore thriller that her heart is in the right place, even though her story is all over the place.