I had low expectations going into Paula Hawkins’s second novel, Into the Water. I liked The Girl on the Train – liked, didn’t love. I certainly turned the pages fast enough, reading it in less than two days. But I didn’t think it was worth all the tremendous, overwhelming hype that it got, and I certainly didn’t think it was the best mystery published in 2015. But I knew that her next book would be one of the most popular of the year, and I was curious enough to give it a go. I’m very glad that I did, because it was a compelling, layered, twisty mystery with an almost Gothic feel that kept me wanting to return to its pages.
Basic premise: Single mom Nel Abbott is dead, turning up in The Drowning Pool, a stretch of river in the English town of Beckford that has seen many women taking their lives in its waters. Or have they been victims of foul play? Only a couple of months earlier, a high school girl was found in the river, an apparent suicide, with stones in her pockets. She was the best friend of Nel’s daughter, Lena. Is there a connection between the two events? Nel was writing a book about the sordid history of the river and its victims. Did she come too close to the truth for comfort?
Told from multiple perspectives, including the type-written pages of Nel’s manuscripts, this mystery was layered with secret upon secret. It seemed every person in the town had a grudge against Nel, even her own estranged sister, Jules. It’s Jules’s perspective that we get the most of, and we see the sisters’ complicated history in flashbacks. Her grief is overshadowed by something she thinks Nel played a part in when she was thirteen and Nel was seventeen, something Jules has never recovered from emotionally.
Some of the women you wrote about are buried in that churchyard, some of your troublesome women. Were all of you troublesome? Libby was, of course. At fourteen she seduced a thirty-four-year-old man, enticed him away from his loving wife and infant child. Aided by her aunt, the hag Mary Seeton, and the numerous devils that they conjured, Libby cajoled poor blameless Matthew into any number of unnatural acts. Troublesome indeed. Mary Marsh was said to have performed abortions. Anne Ward was a a killer. But what about you, Nel? What had you done? Who were you troubling?
I liked the feminist tone of the book. Issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and statutory rape play a part in the town’s sordid past and present. In fact, now that I think about it, almost much all the men in the story are creeps. Not that the women are saints – they’re pretty messed up too, only they don’t seem to be holding the power. I liked Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, an outsider to the town brought in to help local police with the investigation. She injected a bit of humor in an otherwise pretty dark book. I chuckled at her frustration when I read this bit:
Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides, and grotesque historical drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.
With so many suspects and secrets I admit I didn’t know the identity of the murderer until the very end of the book. It wasn’t a shock so much as a “Yes! That makes sense!” feeling. It was a satisfying ending for me, considering all the plot elements swirling through its pages. I would say that this book was not about the “big twist” or the surprise ending as so many contemporary thrillers are. Instead, it’s a book about the complexity and unreliability of memory, and the ways in which “troublesome” women have been dealt with over time. So my second book for 20 Books of Summer was a hit! I was pleasantly surprised by how much I like this, and I will definitely be putting Ms. Hawkins’s next book on my TBR. If you plan to read it, know that it’s pretty different from her first book; for me, that was a good thing.