How do you capture lightning in a bottle? It’s a trick that publishers are customarily desperate to pull off, and when it happens – as, for instance, with the massive success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl 2012 – it engenders great excitement (and considerable envy) in the book world, with editors casting around ever more desperately for the next breakout book. It wasn’t long in coming. When Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train first appeared in early 2015, response from the critical fraternity was muted but favourable, with admiration expressed for the solid storytelling (along with wry observations on the central theme being cheekily borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) with its troubled heroine witnessing malign behaviour (involving her ex-husband) through a train window. But then the unexpected happened, and — in a demonstration of the fact that critics know nothing — the book became a prodigious, all-conquering bestseller, with an ensuing big budget film adaptation (starring Emily Blunt) adding more lustre to Hawkins’ reputation and bank balance.
Hawkins was not a debut author; she had previously written about how women could manage their own finances, The Money Goddess (something she’ll now find useful herself). In interviews, she seemed bemused by her new fame as a novelist – and one wonders if her publishers uttered the dread phrase ‘second novel syndrome’ in her presence when it was time for a follow-up to The Girl on the Train. After all, Hawkins had to face the fact that this was a hurdle at which many a novelist has fallen, producing an underwhelming successor to a megahit. What to do? Write a second novel, that replicates the structure and narrative of the first book, or strike out in a completely new direction? In the event, Hawkins has opted for the latter strategy, perhaps secure in the knowledge that Into the Water is comfortably presold, as her last novel achieved such remarkable success. But has she pulled it off?
Certainly, this is a very different book from its predecessor. Once again, the principal characters are women, but no single protagonist as with the vulnerable alcoholic heroine of the first book. The new book adopts a risky strategy of multiple viewpoints — so many, in fact, that even the attentive reader may struggle to keep up with which particular character we are in the company of at any given time. But there is nothing wrong with challenging the reader, and that is what Hawkins audaciously does here.
A river and its history are central to the narrative. A watery death has been the fate of a variety of women in a small English town, including a vulnerable teenage girl. And when a single mother, Nel, appears to have thrown herself off a cliff into the river, a slew of other lives are to have a spotlight thrown on them. Nel’s short-tempered15-year-old daughter, Lena, is left behind without parents and without friends. She is in the reluctant care of her aunt, Jules, a stranger who finds herself forced back to the place that she could not wait to leave and said she would never return to. What’s more, Jules ignored her dead sister’s last phone call, and is paying a price for that. But many people are caught in the fall-out from Nel’s death; needless to say (and this is not a spoiler) the mystery is not as simple as a series of suicides, and grim revelations are in store involving the Drowning Pool.
Undoubtedly, there are likely to be two responses to Into the Water. Those looking for a relatively straightforward crime novel may find their patience tested by the fragmentary nature of the narrative, often with the same events revisited by different characters (not to mention shifts from the past to the present). But in an era of much dumbed-down popular culture (although such TV shows as Line of Duty present challenging fare), the intricate plotting perhaps suggests that Hawkins respects her readers’ intelligence and assumes that we will make that extra effort to keep mental tabs on the large cast of characters – many of them drawn with great vividness. We’ve encountered the sullen teenager before, railing against society and the hypocrisy of adults, but here we have a particularly sharp and uncompromising example with the expletives-dispensing Lena. And there is the defenceless Jules (in flashback), overweight and unattractive. The episode of her humiliation when she is pitilessly ridiculed by ‘friends’ involves the sympathetic reader in direct fashion. But it has to be said that some of the fourteen or so characters are insufficiently differentiated (the use of a large cast of characters which works so well on television, in Hawkins’ novel – without visual aids — seems to cry out for a glossary, and several of the characters make very little impact) However, Into the Water remains largely arresting as layer after layer is peeled back to reveal the truth about the deaths in the river. The inevitable film will no doubt follow, but that may actually do more justice to Hawkins’ scenario than the movie of The Girl on the Train; with its abrupt crosscutting, this second novel is more notably cinematic. Hawkins is an ambitious writer, inclining to the literary end of the spectrum, but her third crime novel will possibly need to be more focussed, accessing the levels of suspense that were a key characteristic of her last novel.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Doubleday, £10, 353 pages