INTO THE WATER, by Paula Hawkins. Riverhead Books, 388 pp. $28.
Paula Hawkins’ last novel, the mega-bestseller “Girl on the Train,” may have had a few improbabilities, but it was a first-class psychological thriller. It was told from the points of view of three not entirely sympathetic women: a needy alcoholic who has suffered plot-crucial blackouts, a woman who has supplanted the first in her husband’s life (and house), and a soon-to-be murdered woman for whom our alcoholic has spun an imaginary life story.
With real narrative adeptness, Hawkins drove the reader to assess and reassess her characters and their reliability for hundreds of pages through a plot that executed as many diabolic reverses as nightmare. Now she gives us “Into the Water,” another psychological thriller, though one with a very different M.O.
The story is set in Beckford, a little town in the north of England through which a river runs, making a bend to create what the residents refer to as the Drowning Pool. It is an eerie place whose awful depths have taken the lives of a number of women over the years — by force or by suicide.
The most recent fatality is Nel Abbott, a single mother, writer and photographer. At the time of her death, she had been working on a book about the victims of this baneful pool, her first subject being one Libbie Seeton who was drowned by townsmen 300 years ago during a trial for witchcraft. Centuries later, a woman now referred to as “Mad Annie” murdered her husband and promptly drowned herself in the pool. Recently, the body count has begun to pick up, and Nel had come to believe that the pool was “a place of persecuted women, outsiders and misfits fallen foul of patriarchal edicts.”
Was Nel such a one? It is hard for those who knew her to believe that she took her own life, so perhaps we are looking at a murder. Meanwhile, Nel’s estranged sister, Jules, has shown up to look after Nel’s child, 15-year-old Lena, who — chock full of teenage angst and resentment — is a real pain in the nether parts.
Lena, it emerges, is suffering from grief and guilt over her best friend, Katie, who, only a few months ago, killed herself by throwing herself into the infamous pool. Lena believes this desperate act was her fault because she told someone about Katie’s clandestine doings and the wretched girl thought only her own death could protect a loved one from scandal and worse. Katie and Lena are only two of the many characters who are tormented by unrevealed missteps, traumas and crimes from the past.
Hidden deeds and nameless anxieties beset Jules; Katie’s brother, Josh; a teacher, Mark Henderson; and a police officer who is investigating Nel’s death. This is Det. Insp. Sean Townsend, a native of the town and the son, as it happens, of a woman who was drowned in the pool when he was a boy. Sean’s father, Patrick, is an ex-cop with a (secret) history of violence. Sean’s wife, Helen — kindly and “plain as a brown bird” — is, we begin to think, just a little too good to be true. Then there is disreputable, witchy Nickie Sage, a barrel of old secrets and a fount of gnomic utterances. Her sister Jeannie died years ago in, we are led to believe, sinister, but never revealed, circumstances.
The story, such as it is, is told from the viewpoints of these and other characters, amounting to over a dozen sources of testimony. It is impossible not to compare this approach with the one taken by Hawkins in her previous novel. There, the characters had psychological credibility and the three viewpoints served as a form of narrative triangulation with excellent results.
In the present book, however, the characters — so multitudinous and so lacking in personality or dimension — are just plain stingy with what they know, rather than deluded or self-justifying. Taken together, they provide a welter of incomplete information and withheld knowledge. Dire secrets are constantly hinted at and those who hold them moon around in states of persistent psychological tension. And when those hidden matters are slowly — so slowly — revealed to the impatient reader, they neither propel nor deepen the plot. They merely latch onto it until what we have is a tangle of narrative strands that never knit together.
This is an unfortunate follow-up to “The Girl on the Train” and, we are hoping, an aberration.