Paula Hawkins’ first book, “The Girl on the Train” benefited from the tailwind created by the huge success of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” Readers, it seemed, were anxiously searching for thrillers with major twists on the theme of women hating men.
Hawkins has a new novel out, a thriller with a major twist with the theme of men hating women. It’s not great (but neither was “Train,”) and it’s way too long, but it’s summer and everything seems better when read by the side of a big body of water.
The novel starts with the death of Nel Abbott, apparently by suicide, but this being the beginning of a 400-page thriller no one should believe that. Nel’s estranged sister Jules drags herself back to their hometown (where Nel still lives in the family home) to handle arrangements and figure out what to do with Nel’s troubled teenage daughter, Lena.
A body of water runs through this hometown, Beckford, somewhere in England, and ends just outside town in what locals call the Drowning Pool. That’s where men from time immemorial have thrown women — suspected witches and known bitches — from a high cliff into the deep pool to get rid of them. To be fair, some women over the centuries threw themselves into the pool, but it was to escape horrible men.
Nel, a photographer and writer, is working on a book called “The Drowning Pool,” chronicling all the deaths that have taken place there. In doing so, she stirred up the town’s ghosts. Her daughter’s friend had just committed suicide (maybe not) in the drowning pool shortly before Nel did (didn’t), and other characters in the book have lost loved ones there, too.
There are lots of characters: a police chief and his father with their own Drowning Pool history, the chief’s wife who is really angry about something, an out-of-town inspector who’s asking all the wrong questions, a dreamy young male teacher with his own secret (I bet you can figure it out) and Nickie, a nutty old lady who wanders the town telling everyone they’d know what the hell was truly going on if they’d only listen to her. That’s because she can talk to the dead.
Nickie is annoying as hell, but I want to devote this paragraph to her because she speaks a line that has haunted me since I read the book. She describes another character as having “a face like a slapped ass.” Yeah, that’s right — a face like a slapped ass. What does that even mean? Flat and red? Flabby and red? Dimpled and red? I can’t figure it out. Nowadays, in crowds I am constantly looking for someone who might conceivably have a face like a slapped ass. No luck yet, but I have hope.
The novel’s device of using several narrators was confusing early on, but once I got into the story — and because Hawkins is so repetitive — the book sorted itself out. It’s hard to get confused after a while. The repetition of characters’ emotions and of Jules’ thought process as she puts the pieces together and of the same minor incident from different narrators’ viewpoints don’t leave room for confusion. They tried my patience, though, and made the book much longer than it needed to be.
Another device Hawkins uses too much is having characters say things in their heads that they want to shout at other characters.
Maybe if they did shout them the first time instead of stewing on them for chapter after chapter, it would have moved things along and “Water” would have been a tighter, better novel.