Paula Hawkins' debut thriller, "The Girl on the Train," was an international sensation two years ago, selling more than 20 million copies, and critics and fans have eagerly anticipated her next work. "Into the Water" captures all the suspense and terrifying emotions of the first, but it beams with a maturity in writing and in storytelling that will draw her fans right back over the edge.
In a centuries-old northern English village, a meandering river takes a lazy turn and the water collects in a swimming inlet that has lured bathers forever. But the beach and swimming hole hold a history of tragedies. Many women have plunged from the steep cliff above — not always by their own hand. Others, going back to the 1600s, have been dragged into the water, bound and alone, by superstitious hooligans trying to find out if the suspected witch will sink or float.
The villagers have spun a dark mythos from these tragedies, and the water has earned its name: the Drowning Pool.
The latest body to be pulled from the water is Nel, who was documenting the tales of the Drowning Pool — which made her unpopular with the villagers. Nel had a lot to live for, especially her teenage daughter, Lena, who had lost her own best friend at the pool not long ago in a still-unsolved mystery.
But Nel also had secrets that made a suicide not so hard to comprehend.
Hawkins' tale is told through so many sets of eyes that it's sometimes hard to keep the playlist straight.
There's the standoffish outsider, Jules, coming back to the place of horrid childhood memories to bury a sister whom she hasn't spoken to in years. The left-behind Lena, who has no love for this strange aunt and can't believe her mum would commit suicide by jumping off the dark cliff into the swirling water below. The village crazy, Nickie, who knows more than she should, but her ravings ensure that no one pays any attention. The detective inspector Sean, and his dark father, Patrick, who survived on their own after Sean's mother apparently leapt from the very same cliff when Sean was just a boy. Now it's his job to unravel Nel's case.
We even flash back to the 1600s and hear from Libby, the town's haunt and its muse, who was drowned as a witch in the 1600s and perhaps began the fateful link between the river and the village.
This is just a smattering of the characters, and each chapter is narrated from their different points of view. We encounter so many versions of history and so many secrets that we have no idea what's a red herring and what's integral to the plot — a device Hawkins excels at. You can feel the author smiling as she plants one, two, three possibilities in your head that stick with you in ensuing chapters, only to be shoved aside as another plot line emerges.
"Into the Water" has disturbing currents of teen suicide, adultery, age-inappropriate sex, domestic violence and crippling psychological problems. You don't know for sure which of those characteristics belong to whom until the book's final chapters. Any of the players could be the culprit behind Nel's death — even Nel herself.
But the novel also flows with an instinctual understanding of relationships, young love, devoted friendships and dedication to duty, familial faults and small-town paranoia. Every character is believable. The actions seem right and real, even when you don't see them coming.
Prepare to settle in with the sisters of the water. The river tells the village's story as surely as the lifeline on your palm.
Ginny Greene is a copy editor and frequent mystery reviewer for the Star Tribune.
Into the Water
By: Paula Hawkins.
Publisher: Riverhead, 388 pages, $28.