“People turned a blind eye, though, didn’t they? No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day.”
Riverhead Books | 2017
My favourite book of 2016 was The Girl on the Train. And yes I know that’s such a cliché thing to say in starting this review. And it’s such a shit thing to do – to compare these novels. And it’s not like I want to compare them, and I’m trying really hard not to, but I read this novel because I wanted to consume The Girl on the Train in order to have it inside of me I LOVED IT SO MUCH (shit movie though.)
So honestly I’m going to try to divorce myself, as best I can, from my previous experience with Paula Hawkins and just focus on the merits of this novel as a standalone piece of fiction, *whispers* but at the same time, I’m only here because of her first novel…
That said, I did like this. But I didn’t LOVE IT.
Quick synopsis: Small UK town. Nel Abbott is writing a novel about the many deaths in a local river nicknamed The Drowning Pool. Nel dies in The Drowning Pool. Was it suicide or murder?
“Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women.”
I got off to a shaky start because of the sheer volume of characters and changing POVs. I think there are 10 different voices, as well as excerpts from Nel’s manuscript, that are essentially quick POVs of each of the women who have died in The Drowning Pool, bringing the grand total up to 14 voices (if I’ve not forgotten anyone.)
I settled in about 50% of the way through, finally getting a handle of who each character was and why their POV was important. There wasn’t a single time I thought a character’s chapter was useless, but I still have to question whether there wasn’t a way to write this novel cutting out half of them? Just to un-muddy the waters, no pun intended.
Nel’s death is the catalyst that kick-starts a whole unearthing of buried secrets and small-town drama, leading to the real sun of this novel: the suicide of Katie Whitaker, a 15-year-old high school student who died just months before. Eventually, everything revolves around Katie and why she took her own life and what secrets she was keeping.
But still, this doesn’t fit into the “mystery” genre for me. Yes, there are deaths and a criminal investigation and unanswered questions, but there are so many other narrative elements being used in this novel that the mystery is diluted and we’re left with something a little more in the contemporary category. The real standout themes here are explored because of the opportunities a criminal investigation provides – the interlocking personal dramas and histories of the people of this small town, and the relationships between families and friends – are where the heart of this novel beats.
The suspense was minimal to me, but it did exist, built through misunderstandings and miscommunication, that sometimes felt a little too easy, cheap even. There is a deliberate suppression of the truth on the behalf of the author, that could come across as hokey in its execution if you were a more cynical reader (like myself.) Other truths are revealed as a casual aside to a conversation, treated almost as an afterthought when you would have expected more build up. And some truths are not revealed at all, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about the obvious. Climatic scenes are stripped of tension to allow for a more emotionally reserved approach, leaving (what should have been) the more “explosive” moments of the novel feeling more considerate or thoughtful, instead of aggressive and anxious. And the final confrontation comes across as a dramatic family dinner, instead of an intense showdown.
This all left me with a feeling of an uneven tone, as if Hawkins was going back and forth between deciding if she was writing a mystery-suspense novel, or just a drama, depending on her mood.
“Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath.”
So I know that might sound like I didn’t like this, but I did, it just doesn’t have the same addictive compulsion to it that The Girl on the Train brought. There are so many characters that you never get too emotionally involved, the mystery and tension is subtle, and despite the pacing that the short chapters give it, it is more thoughtful and quiet than the frantic, erratic charge of its predecessor.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad novel, on its own merits. It’s a decent read. There is heart to it, honesty and meditative emotion. While I won’t be putting this on my “page-turner” shelf, I did indeed spend all weekend reading this at any spare moment I could find, with a healthy investment in the story. It isn’t necessarily the kind of book I would pick up without the author’s name on the cover, but that would have been my loss and I’ll remember that in the future. Paula Hawkins is officially one of my go-to authors.
And, as an aside, you kind of have to hand it to Hawkins, she wrote the story that she wanted to, deviating from the successful, moneymaker path she forged with her first novel. That in, and of itself, is something to be applauded.
In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help. Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind. But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped. And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .
*Migrated review: Originally posted on Goodreads in July 2017