When I first read that Paula Hawkins had a new novel coming out this year I freaked out. As you recall I loved The Girl on the Train, and I was immediately smitten with Hawkins on her first interview here as soon as she expressed her views on women and crime fiction. You can revisit the interview here. So, when I saw pictures of her new novel Into The Water to be published on the 2nd of May, I knew I had to get my hands on one. I also knew I would love it (spoiler alert: I was right!). Thanks to Paula and to Alison Barrow’s team for sending me one.
‘Nel Abbott is dead’, she said.
‘They found her in the water.’
Into the Water starts with the death of Nel Abbott in a small town in England. But she is not the protagonist of the story, as her identity is reconstructed throughout the novel by her estranged sister Jules who sees her return to their hometown to take her of Nel’s daughter Lena as her late sister’s last and darkest joke. However, Jules’ is not the only voice in the book. As it happened with The Girl on the Train, Hawkins creates a story from different points of view playing with the readers’ perception of the characters. If Rachel was a divorcee and an alcoholic, Nel is a hippie, an artist, a beautiful unmarried woman who leads a tranquil life with her daughter. Or isn’t she? Playing with social and gender prejudices, Hawkins makes the reader face long-held beliefs about women, knowledge and body issues. The background of Nel’s life is plagued by her obsession with the Drowning Pool, an enchanted part of the local river in which witch trials and sacrifices took place, holing a special attraction to the women of the town ever since.
With the reminiscence of witchery trials and the secret behind women’s knowledge in a 21st century story, Hawkins is brining back the social construction of women’s knowledge, as well as the sometimes trickery action of being defined by prejudices in a small town. Nel’s life constructs her as liminal in the white, middle-class and familiar environment of her hometown. Her beauty is considered dangerous. Her daughter is said to be following her steps. And the bond between them is strange to even the closest pair of mothers and daughters. And above all, she is obsessed with the Drowning Pool and the women who died there. So much so, that she is writing a book about them. A collective biography that aims to bring together the life and death of the women that jumped into the water, partially reproduced thanks to Jules in the book. Hence when Nel’s body is found in said drowning pool no one thinks twice about it, except her daughter. Was Nel the kind of woman who would jump? Who was Nel Abbott?
Like good English crime fiction, Into the Water is a crime novel and a character study. Like a Paula Hawkins book, the story forces readers to question the social construction of each of the characters’ identities, as well as their own definition of self. Confronted with the death of her sister, Jules sees herself become legal guardian to Nel’s daughter. But why were the Abbott sisters estranged in the first place? Lena is faced with her mother’s apparent suicide, but also with her best friend’s. What did the two women have in common? Detective Sean Townsend has seen enough death in the Drowning Pool of recently, will he able to solve the crime? These are only three of the several characters that construct the narrative and that faithfully reproduce the power of the community in the social construction of narratives.
I enjoyed The Girl on the Train a lot and I thought that from a feminist perspective the book has done a lot to question women’s representation in crime fiction. But Into The Water is even better, as Hawkins directly addresses the historical persecution of women’s knowledge and the agency that stemmed from it. However, those issues could easily become secondary for the general crime fiction reader, who will find a complex page-turner with a shocking ending. Totally recommended to all my readers here.