Published by Riverhead Books
Publication date: May 2nd 2017
Somehow I ended up reading two books recently on the same esoteric subject—witch hunting in England in the 1600s. Earlier this week I reviewed The Witchfinder’s Sister and now I’m back with Into the Water, Paula Hawkins’s new novel. The title is a reference to the test of tying a woman to a chair and dropping her in a pond. If she sinks, she’s innocent. If she floats, she’s a witch. Pretty much a lose-lose situation for the woman. Hawkins uses the practice as the backdrop for a modern day story about two women drowning in a local river within a month of each other. Both are classified as suicides, but the why of their deaths has a lot of people asking questions. Especially given this river’s history of women drowning in it.
In Into the Water Hawkins lays the seeds for the novel’s mystery with a sparing hand. Every character has a voice and almost every person in the small English town of Beckford is a character, from the inspector, his father the former chief inspector, his wife the headmistress, a local photographer with a fascination for the river, her daughter, her sister, a high school teacher, even the local psychic. Given the expansive cast, Hawkins wisely keeps the chapters brief—adding to a conversational, gossipy feel as more information and details are revealed. Also, unlike her previous novel, The Girl on the Train, there is no one highly damaged red-flag protagonist, but everyone has a little something they’re not sharing about what’s been happening in their town for decades. And women just keep showing up dead in what comes to be known as the Drowning Pool.
The novel swirls around the ever elusive concept of memory—especially for children. Two characters in particular have very clear memories of traumatic events in their childhoods, but are they accurate? Because it’s often the way with childhood that memories are as fluid as ripples on water—shifting, expanding, being permanently etched in the mind or completely forgotten.
The things I want to remember I can’t, and the things I try so hard to forget just keep coming.
This aspect of the novel is intriguing because memory is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Sadly, it’s not enough to counterbalance a plot which languishes in the dynamics of how some men deal with inconvenient or “troublesome” women. Into the Water is more believable and less of a drama overload than Girl on the Train, but nothing about it feels fresh, only predictable. I was really hoping with her sophomore effort I could jump on the Hawkins train, but it didn’t happen.