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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of INTO THE WATER by Paula Hawkins

3 Stars
This is Paula Hawkins’s much anticipated second novel after The Girl on the Train. I rated the latter as a 3-star read and Into the Water is about the same in quality. 

The novel is set in Beckford, a village in northern England.  Beckford has a river running through it and a drowning pool where several women have died.  The latest is Nel Abbott who had become obsessed with investigating the sometimes mysterious deaths about which she planned to write a book.  Jules, Nel’s estranged sister, arrives to look after Lena, Nel’s teenaged daughter, and begins to wonder whether Nel’s death was a suicide as Lena suspects.  It turns out that there are a number of people who disliked Nel and her pre-occupation with the women who had died.  Was Nel correct when she wrote before her death that “Beckford is not a suicide spot.  Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women”?

One of the problems with the book is keeping track of people.  First of all, there are the women who have died in the river:  Libby Seeton, Anne Ward, Lauren Slater, Katie Whittaker, among others.  One of the police detectives sums up the difficulty:  “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 misogynistic drownings.” 

Then there are the multiple viewpoints.  The points of view of ten characters are given, besides Nel’s which is given through her notes for her proposed book.  Unfortunately, the voices of the narrators are very similar in tone.  There is insufficient differentiation.  And because there are so many characters, each remains fairly flat.  Jules and Lena are the exceptions; they are both dynamic, but their growth is not well developed because focus is missing. 

Tension is generally missing, except for a couple of episodes in which the sense of danger and urgency is removed quite quickly.  The most common technique used to create suspense is the withholding of information.  One narrator comments, “I couldn’t touch her.  Not after what I’d done.”  Of course, he doesn’t explain what he had done.  Other characters are as secretive, and it is soon obvious that virtually all of the narrators are unreliable.  After a while, this technique of withholding information just becomes irritating. 

The portrayal of men is also problematic.  Almost all of the men are evil:  abusive misogynists, rapists, adulterers, pedophiles, or murderers.  The town seems to have no upstanding male residents.  The author obviously wants to show the effects of misogyny but portraying all men as bad suggests her viewpoint is skewed. 

Hawkins also tries to develop other themes:  the lasting impact of trauma and the unreliability of memory.  Unfortunately, the development is superficial so there is only a nod at literary depth.

Like The Girl on the Train, this book is a light, summer read.  Its short chapters make it an easy read.  Though somewhat entertaining, it does not stand up to careful scrutiny and literary analysis but is a fast read appropriate for a vacation.

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This book reminded me of the Drowning Pool I encountered in Iceland. This is the Drekkingarhyulur (Drowning Pool) in Þingvellir National Park where, between 1618 and 1749, eighteen women were executed by drowning.

The Drekkingharhylur in Iceland's Þingvellir National Park