Tuesday 12 December 2017

Hawkins returns with bloated, watery mystery

Thriller: Into the Water, Paula Hawkins, Doubleday, hdbk, 368 pages, €14.99

Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins
Into The Water

Meadhbh McGrath

The follow-up to The Girl on the Train will be the publishing event of the year, but its convoluted structure and proliferation of stereotypes make it a struggle to read, says our reviewer.

It was always going to be a tough act to follow. When The Girl on the Train came out in 2015, riding in on the coat tails of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and bearing a baldly copycat title, no one could have predicted its phenomenal success. The debut thriller by Paula Hawkins (who had previously published four chick-lit novels under the pseudonym Amy Silver between 2009 and 2013), it has sold close to 20 million copies worldwide, and still enjoys a spot in the bestsellers chart. Last year, it was adapted into a film starring Emily Blunt and Justin Theroux, pulling in $170m at the box office.

Flynn and Hawkins' books spawned a booming subgenre: domestic noir, or 'grip lit'. In the past two years, there has been a deluge of female-focused psychological thrillers in the race to fill the post-The Girl on the Train (TGOTT) gap, but readers remain hungry for the follow-up to Hawkins' sensation.

Now, at last, it has arrived.

Into the Water takes place over a single month in 2015 in Beckford, a small village with a sinister lake running through it that curves into the Drowning Pool, a spot where witches were supposedly drowned in the 17th century and where many women have met their end in the years since.

The novel opens after the death of Nel Abbot, an unpopular middle-aged writer and photographer fascinated by the Drowning Pool and working on a book about the women who died there - including a 15-year-old girl named Katie, who drowned just a few months before Nel.

After her death, Nel's younger sister Jules (the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist) returns to her former home to care for her spiky teenage niece, Lena, who was a close friend of Katie's. The grown-up Jules seems to do little more than engage in long, tedious bouts of remorse, but she relives her past over and over again in minute detail. As the story trudges on, she uncovers secrets about her sister, her niece, and herself, coming to realise how deeply she misunderstood her own childhood. It's difficult to treat Into the Water as if it were just another novel -­ the shadow of Hawkins' previous work is inescapable. Fans of TGOTT may approach the book expecting similarly twisty, addictive thrills they can devour in the space of a weekend, but Into the Water is hard going. Bloated and with needless minor characters and pointless plot lines that lead nowhere, the tone is relentlessly glum, and the mystery crushingly mundane. Critics may have complained that TGOTT was convoluted, but it is a paragon of lucidity in comparison.

The inventive structure of Hawkins' bestseller is not replicated here - the only similarity between the two are a host of unreliable narrators, but where TGOTT had three, Into the Water has no less than 10, some first-person, others third, lurching between them every four or five pages. On top of this, there are sections narrated by a teenage Jules in 1993, along with passages from Nel's unfinished manuscript about the Drowning Pool.

Hawkins doesn't so much introduce her characters as hurl them at the reader, and keeping track of who's who and what relation they are to each other proves to be a Herculean task, leaving you longing for an index to clarify who all these people are.

"Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women," one of the many narrators proclaims, and Hawkins has jammed them all in - along with sad, lonely Jules and feisty Lena, there's Katie's heartbroken mother Louise, brittle headteacher Helen, displaced city cop Erin and Nickie, a dodgy mystic who claims to commune with the dead (why not?).

There's a seemingly endless supply of uniformly terrible men, among them a domestic abuser, a rapist who crows about a 13-year-old girl "begging for it" and a paedophile who delights in his ability to seduce schoolgirls and "older women, the wrong side of 35, losing their looks". But it seems Hawkins can't make up her mind, as the novel takes a troublingly sympathetic view on his relationship with a student, justifying it as something "people don't understand".

Hawkins is fascinated by the unreliability of her narrators - certainly more than this reader was - but the story is painfully difficult to follow when those narrators offer only partial or muddled memories of key events, recalled in impossibly vague terms, all the while giddily reminding us not to trust them with lines such as: "Really what did she know about the truth? They were all just telling stories." The goal may be to build suspense, but Hawkins' constant clumsy interruptions call a halt to any budding momentum.

It's disappointing that vivid anti-heroines like Amy Dunne and Rachel Watson are followed up by the laughably indistinct Jules, a woman whose meek dourness is reinforced at every turn. Rachel was such a success because Hawkins developed her beyond a stereotypical alcoholic sneaking pre-mixed cans of G&T on the train, yet the women of Into the Water remain limited to caricature - the promiscuous home-wrecker, the uptight shrew, the brooding teen.

The clever reveal in the novel's final moments isn't worth the 350 sluggish pages that precede it. In any case, the book's critical reception is of little import. The film rights were snapped up before publication by DreamWorks, devoted fans will ensure it flies off the shelves, and the surrounding media campaign will clinch it: Into the Water is sure to be the publishing event of the year.

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