Into the Water is the new book by Paula Hawkins, whose debut novel, The Girl on the Train, was such a huge success, not just commercially but also critically — it was on the New York Times Bestseller list for over four months following its release in 2015, which surely has to be a record, at least for a first book. I absolutely loved that book and wrote about it shortly after I reread it last summer and found that I enjoyed it as much as the first time I read it. Naturally, my expectations were really high from Into the Water, although I was also afraid that it wouldn’t be as brilliant as The Girl on the Train. After all, wasn’t it possible that the resounding success of her debut novel had blunted the artistic sensibilities of the author as well as her drive and motivation? Could Paula Hawkins really come up with something that would be as good as The Girl on the Train?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about not enjoying Into the Water as much as I did The Girl on the Train. It is as brilliantly written and as much of a taut, suspenseful thriller as The Girl on the Train – I couldn’t put it down and read it in the course of an evening, staying up till the early hours of the morning to finish it. I simply had to know what happens.
Into the Water is set in a small town in England that has a river running through it, one part of which happens to be a treacherous spot where people can drown – either by jumping into the water or by being thrown off. This spot, known to locals as “the Drowning Pool,” has a troubled history, with many women losing their lives there – hundreds of years ago, when people believed in witchcraft, women thought to be witches were thrown into the water, and more recently, it has become somewhat of a suicide spot for troubled women to end their lives. The book begins with the death of a woman, Nel, in the drowning pool. Did she jump into the water or was she pushed? Nel’s death seems to be connected to the death of Katie, a teenage girl, in the same spot about six months ago, which was believed to be a suicide. It’s also possible that the connection actually began with the death of another woman, Lauren, in that spot thirty years ago.
The story is told from the points of view of several characters: Nel’s long estranged sister, Jules, who is forced to come back to the town she and Nel grew up in; Nel’s teenage daughter, Lena, who also happened to be Katie’s best friend; Katie’s mother, Louise; the local detective to whom the case is assigned, Sean, who is also Lauren’s son; and several other characters including Katie’s brother, Sean’s wife, Sean’s father, the high school teacher with whom Katie was having an affair, and last but not least, a local psychic who everyone thinks is crazy but who actually has some important insights into what actually happened. Nel, who was a single mother, had always been obsessed with the Drowning Pool, and her research on it was not appreciated by the others in the community, particularly those whose lives had been affected by it, such as Katie’s mother, Louise. Katie’s brother was just a young boy, but he had seen his mother go out the night Nel died – had she something to do with Nel dying in the water? And why exactly had Katie committed suicide? Why was Jules estranged from her sister all these years? If Nel had indeed killed herself, maybe if Jules had responded when Nel had reached to her, she wouldn’t have been so troubled as to commute suicide? Why was Lena so difficult? Was it normal teenage rebelliousness compounded by the irrevocable loss of her mother, or was she hiding something? Why did Sean seem disturbed so often in the course of the investigation?
By the end of the book, you, of course, get the answers to these questions and things make sense. I was gratified to find the quality of the writing to be as good as The Girl on the Train, and it was just as suspenseful and thrilling, making it impossible to put the book down.
That said, while I thoroughly enjoyed reading Into the Water, I don’t see myself re-reading it with the same level of enjoyment as The Girl on the Train. For one, there are many more characters here, and not only is it initially confusing to the reader, I think it is also more difficult for the author to “get inside” the heads of so many characters, leaving us with a little more than a cursory understanding of many of them, even though they narrate their parts of the story in first person. Also, the reason behind Jules’s estranged relationship with Nel did not seem very convincing. And finally, I felt that the book does not sufficiently clarify every single question — and it could be because there were too many interconnected threads in the plot.
In short, I found Into the Water a great read, but not the kind of book I would go out and buy a copy of for my personal library, as I did for The Girl on the Train.
Into the Water
Author: Paula Hawkins
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: May 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.