Into the Water
By Paula Hawkins
Riverhead. 400 pp. $28 nolead ends
Reviewed by David Martindale
And readers thought Rachel Watson, that girl on the train, was an unreliable narrator.
Paula Hawkins - whose debut thriller, Girl on the Train, was the top-selling book in America for the last two years - has upped the ante in her good but not great follow-up. Into the Water is dripping with first- and third-person narration that cannot be trusted. The heroine of Girl had issues with alcoholism and blackouts, but here some are liars, some have incomplete or willfully selective memories, and some are just crazy. All have secrets.
The story is set in a small town called Beckford, a throwback riverside community in northern England. One particular bend in the river is a spot that has come to be known as the Drowning Pool, widely regarded as "a suicide spot." It also is called "a place to get rid of troublesome women."
Along comes Danielle Abbott, who grew up there, obsessed with the history of the Drowning Pool. Planning to write a book, she starts asking too many questions, ruffles too many feathers. As they say in Beckford, she is a troublesome woman.
Perhaps inevitably, a 15-year-old girl - the best friend of Danielle's just as troublesome daughter Lena - turns up dead, an apparent Drowning Pool suicide. The dead girl's mother blames Danielle. Weeks later, Danielle herself dies suspiciously, her body pulled out of the very same water. Her estranged sister Jules, who nearly drowned there two decades earlier and who is still traumatized, wants to know why these tragedies keep happening. A new police investigation begins, more than just a formality/cover-up.
Like bodies in the Drowning Pool, all of the secrets, past and present, will come to the surface: abuse, affairs, rapes, murders. Many of these crimes are interrelated - linked by one particular piece of evidence, a necklace, that changes hands more often than a dog-eared library book.
The problem with Into the Water is that, although it's creepy from the get-go, it's not the propulsive page-turner that The Girl on the Train was. It's a slow starter. Glacially slow. Hawkins eventually gets it into gear, dropping bombshell after bombshell, chapter after chapter. But it takes her more than 200 pages. If she didn't have such stellar credentials, maybe her publisher would have insisted on revisions to a sluggish opening.
It would be a much better book if, instead of dipping a tentative toe in the water, Hawkins had just jumped right into the deep end.