Book Review | Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water Paige's PagesTITLE: Into the Water
: Paula Hawkins
: Doubleday
: May 2, 2017
: Crime, Mystery, Psychological Thriller
: 386

The success of Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, built up my expectations for her new release.  Although I was anticipating a tense and tightly-woven mystery, Into the Water delivers a slow simmer with anticlimactic results.  While it missed the mark for me, I can see how its slow climb and narrative consisting of multiple points of view will appeal to some readers.   

At the heart of Into the Water is the Drowning Pool in the small town of Beckford, so called for its grim history as the death place of several women since the 17th century.  In 2015, the Drowning Pool claims two new victims: 15-year-old Katie Whittaker, and single mum Nel Abbott.  While Beckford is devastated by Katie’s suicide, many are suspicious of Nel’s death – not least of all because Nel dedicated her life to mapping the mystery of the Drowning Pool, making enemies along the way.  She always said the pool was the place to do away with troublesome women.  Her estranged sister, Jules, returns to their childhood home to care for Nel’s daughter, Lena, and face the ghosts of her past.

The river can go back over the past and bring it all up and spit it out on the banks in full view of everyone, but people can’t.  Women can’t.  When you start asking questions and putting up little advertisements in shops and pubs, when you start taking pictures and talking to newspapers and asking questions about witches and women and lost souls, you’re not asking questions, you’re asking for trouble – page 90


Premise & Pacing

Although commonly referred to as a suicide spot, the Drowning Pool’s macabre history began in the 17th century with the “swimming” of suspected witch, Libby Seeton.  Jules remembers the grim bedtime stories that haunted her and Nel’s childhood, and drove the sisters apart.  Initially, I was excited to the see the nightmarish vibe of the Drowning Pool developed more.  I wondered if a supernatural undercurrent would emerge – explaining the river’s bizarre allure to Nel and the voices medium Nickie Sage hears.  Ideally, I wanted the river to take on such a omnipresence – it does, after all, wind its way through the entire town – that I would feel it unrelentingly haunting me like it did Nel.  (Consider the role of the moors in Wuthering Heights.)  However, its mystery and allure is not developed beyond the opening chapters.  I was disappointed by this missed opportunity.  Even the creepy juxtaposition of children playing in the same water that the women drowned in failed to give me chills.  The only thing I found creepy was the Mill House where Nel and Jules grew up.

The plot takes a long time to warm up.  I found the first 50% slow-paced, due to there being no real urgency driving the plot forwards.  Until the characters grow more suspicious of Nel’s death, they are caught up in personal reflections that give character insight, but which don’t contribute much to building suspense.  Considering my preference for tight plots that deliver their impact within a short time frame, I am not the ideal reader for this slow simmer mystery.  However, a readership that enjoys longer, more drawn-out stories will better appreciate Into the Water‘s gradual climb.


Characters, Point of View & Voice

Into the Water is told from several points of view, with no clear lead character emerging from the mix.  Readers who enjoy books with large casts and multiple points of view will be comfortable with this style.  Personally, I was disoriented now and then by how rapidly the story cycled through characters.  Also, the switching between first and third person P.o.V. and past and present tense was wearisome to me at first.  I eventually settled into the style, although I would have benefited from a character index to refer to.

Although there is no clear cut main character, Jules stands out to me as the person we get to know the most – and through her first person narration, we gain insight into the woman Nel was.  I like this technique of revealing a character through another’s memories – how Nel’s personality unravels for the reader to explore much like the mystery itself.  Funnily enough, she was the character I found most interesting, diverging from gender expectations and viewed by many as a “troublesome” women.  The rest of the cast was either too dislikable, untrustworthy, or shallow for me to emotionally invest in.

I returned my gaze to you, to your slender wrist, to the place where the onyx clasp would have rested on blue veins.  I wanted to touch you again, to feel your skin.  I felt sure I could wake you up.  I whispered your name and waited for you to quiver, for your eyes to flick open and follow me around the room.  I thought perhaps that I should kiss you, if like Sleeping Beauty that might do the trick, and that made me smile because you’d hate that idea.  You were never the princess, you were never the passive beauty waiting for a prince, you were something else.  You sided with darkness, with the wicked stepmother, the bad fairy, the witch – page 48

I felt that overall Hawkins’ voice could have been tightened up for better delivery.  I would have liked to see her long run-on sentences pruned back for some variety of length.  Also, I felt that most of the clues came from the characters revealing a little too much in their internal dialogue – explicitly telling us they have something on their conscience instead of showing us a reason to believe there may be more to them than meets the eye.  I would have preferred if Hawkins allowed the characters’ actions to speak for themselves, without feeling the need to continually over-explain.

When it comes down to pointing fingers at suspects, I had strong suspicions that were confirmed in the long run, leaving me underwhelmed.  Considering that none of the characters are fully likeable, I didn’t feel a huge investment in discovering the culprit(s).  While there were a handful of interesting details that surprised me, the main thread of the plot was neither shocking nor thrilling.



While not all of the themes were pushed to their full potential, I still found them interesting to reflect on.  I enjoyed how Into the Water discusses women’s roles (especially that of a mother), grief and blame, and the love lost between family members.  Jules and Nel’s troubled relationship – their failure to protect, understand, and forgive each other – is a great vehicle for exploring these themes.  I like that the themes focus on women.

Into the Water is a slow simmer mystery that will appeal to readers who enjoy large casts and multiple points of view.  While there are several missed opportunities to develop the characters and create a uniquely creepy atmosphere, it has some memorable themes.  


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