When I read the blurb of this book, I thought it was strangely vague but it isn’t strange at all. Vague is exactly what this book is. There might have been a story worth telling buried in it somewhere but Paula Hawkins didn’t find it. And, unfortunately, that means it suffers from the same problem that so many second books do, which is that it pales in comparison to the author’s debut.
Into the Water should have been Nel’s story. But Nel is already dead from the moment you read the first words and narration duties are instead shared by Nel’s sister, her daughter, the police, teachers from the local school, other parents from the local school, the town eccentric and the killer. And they’re all so busy keeping secrets that this book could have been half as long.
After a long absence, Jules returns to the town she grew up in when the body of Nel, her sister, is recovered from a local suicide spot called the Drowning Pool. Lena, her niece, insists that her mother killed herself and Nel’s obsession with the stories of all the women who have died in the Drowning Pool over the years tends to support that theory. But the bracelet Nel wore everywhere is missing and Jules knows something isn’t quite adding up.
It doesn’t take long to realise that what isn’t adding up is the plot. There are too many threads and Hawkins’s follows them all instead of condensing it into a tight thriller. So what should have been a murder mystery ends up being two murders (one current and one from thirty years ago), a historical rape, a current case of child molestation and a variety of other things that all get in the way of each other.
Hawkins tries to imbue the town with a sense of eeriness, tries to make it a character in itself. But it’s just another small town, like so many small towns we see in literature, with an entire community who think their problems will go away if they ignore them, and simply end up shielding a bunch of people who should be in jail. There are secrets lurking just beneath the surface of everybody’s lives. But the secrets of these people aren’t as devastating as they should be. We’ve seen it all before and quite a few of the characters seem complicit in their own suffering, thereby reducing the sympathy we feel for them. I struggled to find a single character I felt much sympathy for. And that’s down to how they were written because many of the things that happened to them were deserving of sympathy.
It’s a stark difference from Hawkins’s first book, which was populated with really well-drawn characters who made up in many ways for the deficiencies in the plot of The Girl on the Train. No such luck this time.
I read a comment by an author the other day that said they wished publishers would focus less on pursuing the next big thing (that is debut writers) and instead focus on supporting and developing the careers of writers who are already published. The best way to do that would be to stop publishing books from already published writers that aren’t worthy of being published. Stop coddling them. Stop treating them differently because they’ve had past success. Because Into the Water is two or three rewrites away from being the book it should have been. And I think the only reason it was published was to capitalise on the eagerly waiting audience because of The Girl on the Train. But instead of solidifying Hawkins’s legacy, they have damaged it. It’s going to take a spectacular effort with her next book to get back on track.
*First published on Goodreads 27 September 2019