Friday, March 02, 2018

Into The Water - Paula Hawkins

I wanted to put up this review a couple of days ago.  But I held off till after Sridevi’s funeral – as a mark of respect for the woman and professional I admire immensely.  I held off because the title of this book and the nature of her tragic, untimely demise was too much of an uncanny coincidence. Besides, there was such a glut of faecal material on news channels and personal blogs, I just did not feel like even opening my blog. No amount of lamenting on the severe mental regression of our populace will serve any purpose. All of us know it was not like this before…and none of us know why it got to this. Where did this generation come from? This entire generation of sociopaths who’ve invaded our lives and purged every ounce of decency in public discourse?  It’s a question that requires many blogs.

But back to Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. With her debut The Girl on The Train, Hawkins gave an adrenalin shot to the publishing industry with its astounding success, perhaps even surpassing its contemporary grip-lit – Gone Girl. When Into the Water released I picked it up immediately despite less-than-favourable professional reviews. I was very curious as how to she’d managed a dozen POVs – I go crazy even with a first-person account of one measly protagonist. The only book till date that has impressed me with this multi-POV technique was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with its epistolary story-telling.

Into The Water is set in Beckford, a typical, unremarkable small English town, but with a remarkably murky reputation. A river flows through the town and at one of the bends in its meandering course, the river forms a pool – the Drowning Pool. The Drowning Pool has the dubious reputation as a suicide spot, where women through the ages have inexplicably drowned/committed suicide. A place to get rid of “troublesome women”.

We accompany Jules Abbott to Beckford – her childhood home; a place she’d rather forget. But she must make the trip because her estranged sister Danielle – Nel – was found floating in the Drowning Pool. Jules must not only face bitter memories and resentment towards her more successful and beautiful (and now dead) sister, she must also put up with the feral teenage angst and hostility of her fierce niece – Lena. As the story progresses, we get to know Nel was researching the women who’d committed suicide at the Drowning Pool. In the process she’d opened old wounds and she was not very popular in the community. Everyone believes her macabre interest got the better of her – perhaps Nel was so curious about what drew these women into the water that she wanted to see for herself? But then it’s not so straightforward. A few months earlier Katie, Lena’s classmate and BFF had also committed suicide by jumping into the Drowning Pool.

A body of water that’s really a grave. Consuming so many women through the ages.  What is causing this? When I started reading, I felt this was the axis – the pivotal question of the plot. But because the story moves more like a camera-angle POV, the reader’s attention is fragmented. You can’t get to care about any character. I barely warmed up to Jules with her unreliable narration what with her seeing and hearing things in her childhood home. She does not do much to advance the story – of course she is not motivated given her troubled relationship with her sister.  But still, I thought she would incite some change. But like the river, the story then flows  from Nel’s apparent suicide to Katie’s suicide. And in that meandering we are introduced to a motley bunch of characters. Sean, the feckless inspector in charge of the investigations who treads on unethical territory – he’s had an affair with Nel and so he really has no business heading the investigation. But he does. Ironically, Sean’s mother Lauren too had jumped into the Drowning Pool when he was a kid, leaving him motherless and in the care of his highly psychopathic and patriarchal father, Patrick. Sean’s wife is prim and plain Helen – headmistress of the local school where both Katie and Lena are students. The living arrangements of Sean, Patrick and Helen is off-colour and makes you go oookayyy. Then there is the usual town loonie Nickie – a bit of the village idiot – the “psychic” who everyone knows is a fraud. These and various other characters including the Drowning Pool itself get their own chapters to advance the story.

There are enough people with motives, and enough red herrings along the way, but your pulse barely quickens; you simply can’t be bothered because you’ve lost sight of the main question. Was it about Nel’s death? Katie’s death? Or what happened to Jules back in her childhood? Or was it about the place itself?

From a writer’s perspective, I felt this manuscript is remarkable in its experiment and risk-taking and must be applauded. There is no hierarchy of the characters and you don’t know who’s going to become important when. It breaks all the so-called rules of narration and the neatly boxed “primary”, “secondary”, “tertiary” characters.  

But the reader struggles because one must keep up with 12 different voices, and also keep track of the time lines – someone might be narrating incidents that happened back in 1990s. Some are in third-person; some in first person. If you don’t keep an eye on the name appearing as the chapter title, you will not know who’s narrating what.

Because the plot is so character-driven, I felt it lost out on many atmospheric elements spectacularly executed in The Loney. Even though the Drowning Pool gets its own chapters – the river observing the women coming to rest in its belly – somehow it did not move me. I guess I expected to feel a sense of foreboding melancholy or even a little desperation – but nothing. It was just a page I had to turn.

But at its core, Into the Water is really a commentary on how early in life women face and understand gender-based violence; and how this stains everything they do and become; how much stuff like body image, sex (with consent or otherwise), and the need for validation from men rules their lives. I know many eyes will roll – there is a school of thought that this narration must change. I suppose it will when the reality changes.

I have a feeling Hawkins’s next book will elevate grip-lit to a whole new level and I look forward to it!

© Sumana Khan 2018

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