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The inside track on Washington politics.
Hawkins’s heroine, Rachel, rides on a suburban commuter train every day past the same house and watches the same couple breakfasting on their deck — until the day something about that scene changes — and then changes again and again. Hawkins’s technique as a thriller writer is similar to the “KonMari method” of clothes-folding pioneered by Japanese organizing maven Marie Kondo. Her short chapters ingeniously double back on themselves in much the same way a drawer of sweaters, neatened up by Kondo, are pleated and flattened to accordion-sharp perfection. At last, everything slots into place.
Now Hawkins is back with a second thriller, “ Into the Water. ” Many of the elements that helped propel “The Girl on the Train” are present here: a vivid setting and a collection of unreliable narrators who tell variations on a single tale, adding a curious detail here, contradicting a crucial point there.
But something’s amiss in this second novel: It’s stagnant rather than suspenseful. “The Girl on the Train” may have rumbled back and forth on the same train tracks twice a day, but at least it moved; as a thriller, “Into the Water” is stuck in the mud.
Hawkins’s story opens with a young woman named Jules Abbott, who has just been summoned to her older sister Nel’s house by two police officers. That house, located in a small town in the north of England, is the family homestead, although it’s easy to see why Jules fled after she reached adulthood. The place sits so close to a river that it seems on the verge of toppling into the foul water below. Here’s how Jules describes the view from the kitchen window:
“So beautiful, everyone remarked upon the view, but they didn’t really see. They never opened the window and leaned out, they never looked down at the wheel, rotting where it stood, they never looked past the sunlight playing on the water’s surface, they never saw what the water really was, greenish-black and filled with living things and dying things.”
Nel’s corpse has been found in the Drowning Pool, a notorious spot beneath a cliff that she has been obsessively photographing. Nel was researching the history of local women who died in the Drowning Pool — some were suicides, others met their oblivion unwillingly. The first known drowning was that of Libby Seeton, a young girl who was accused of witchcraft. She was fatally dunked in the river in the autumn of 1679. Other victims include poor Anne Ward, whose husband returned from World War I a violent man; and, just recently, Katie Whittaker, a close school friend of Nel’s 15-year-old daughter, Lena.
Readers may wonder why the town council hasn’t erected a chain-link fence around that darn Drowning Pool. An answer, of sorts, is supplied by an old woman named Nickie Sage, who (as her name rather too bluntly indicates) is the local soothsayer: “People turned a blind eye. . . . 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.”
Into this murk wades Jules. She’d been estranged from Nel for years, but now she assumes guardianship of her angry and devastated niece, Lena, and begins investigating her older sister’s mysterious drowning. Suspects begin to hatch like mayflies here: There’s the handsome high school teacher, the nasty retired policeman along with his peculiarly doting daughter-in-law, and Katie Whittaker’s grief-racked mother, who irrationally blames Nel for her daughter’s death. These characters, along with almost everyone else Jules meets in this damp burgh, tell their own versions of the truth, tainted by mold and malice. Jules dredges up dirt until, inevitably, there’s a climactic scene at the water’s edge, where another victim seems destined to vanish into the drink.
In “The Girl on the Train,” Hawkins ingeniously created a situation where an emotionally stuck heroine is jolted back to life in the course of her daily rides past a landscape that alters radically. In “Into the Water,” however, Hawkins’s stock townspeople circle round and round the Drowning Pool, whose sinister nature has remained static for centuries. The revelations about her sister’s life and death produce but a ripple in Jules’s day-to-day life.
“Into the Water” is a dull disappointment of a thriller; one good flush would put everybody — characters and readers alike — out of their misery.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” and a professor of literature at Georgetown University.
By Paula Hawkins
Riverhead. 388 pp. $28
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