New line of in­quiry

De­clan Hughes on Paula Hawkins’s ‘Girl on the Train’ fol­low-up.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - De­clan Hughes De­clan Hughes is a novelist and play­wright. He is cur­rently Arts Coun­cil writer-in-res­i­dence at UCD

Into the Wa­ter By Paula Hawkins Dou­ble­day, £20

Be­fore the psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, be­fore sub­ur­ban noir and do­mes­tic sus­pense, it was called had-I-but-known. Orig­i­nat­ing with Jane Eyre, it earned its wings in The Woman in White and in­formed the work of the golden- age pre­cur­sor Mary Roberts Rine­hart and the Gothic ro­mancer Daphne du Mau­rier, among oth­ers.

In its essence, it in­volved a central fe­male char­ac­ter who dis­cov­ers over the course of the story that noth­ing is as it ap­peared to be, but that the world is no longer as fright­en­ing as it seemed. As op­posed to de­tec­tion, the truth usu­ally emerged by co­in­ci­dence, and, as Ju­lian Sy­mons re­marked in Bloody Mur­der, his great his­tory of crime fic­tion, “the mys­tery is pro­longed only by the ob­sti­nate re­fusal of the char­ac­ters to re­veal es­sen­tial facts”.

The help­less, gaslit hero­ines of these tales fell grad­u­ally out of favour, to be re­placed by more re­source­ful women pro­tag­o­nists. But in 2015, Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train marked the spec­tac­u­lar re­vival of had-I-but- known, with the hap­less, drunken Rachel ul­ti­mately vin­di­cated; its fi­nal line could have been: “Reader, I was right all along.”

Sig­nif­i­cantly, Hawkins wrote ro­mance (as Amy Sil­ver) be­fore com­ing to crime fic­tion. The Girl on the Train, which has sold more than 18 mil­lion copies, read like an in­spired mash-up of the two gen­res, and it has proved hugely in­flu­en­tial, with many nov­el­ists who 10 years ago would have been pub­lished be­tween pas­tel cov­ers now drawn to that book’s dark central in­sight: that what may look like the happy mar­riage, the per­fect life, is in all like­li­hood a ter­ri­ble delu­sion.

Hard act to fol­low

Into the Wa­ter has a hard act to fol­low, then, and while it has a cer­tain amount in com­mon with its pre­de­ces­sor – a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the sto­ries we tell our­selves and how they con­flict with each other and with the truth, and an alarm­ing pro­lif­er­a­tion of re­li­ably loath­some men – it wisely chooses to go its own way.

Af­ter a short pro­logue fea­tur­ing the duck­ing of a sus­pected witch, Into the Wa­ter be­gins with Jules Ab­bott re­turn­ing to the Northum­brian vil­lage of Beck­ford, where she and her es­tranged sis­ter, Nel, used to spend their child­hood hol­i­days. Nel, an in­ter­na­tion­ally suc­cess­ful pho­tog­ra­pher who re­treated to the vil­lage to raise her daugh­ter, Lena, and to work on a book about the many women who died over the years in the lo­cal drown­ing pool, has her­self been found in the river. Lena’s best friend, Katie Whi­taker, died the same way a few months ago, and the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into their deaths forms one strand of the novel.

As im­por­tant to Jules, whose nar­ra­tion is ad­dressed di­rectly to the shade of her revered and feared older sis­ter, are her rec­ol­lec­tion and eval­u­a­tion of the shock­ing events that led to their es­trange­ment. The novel turns on her com­ing to un­der­stand that the story she has told her­self about her sis­ter’s com­plic­ity in this episode is se­ri­ously flawed.

Whereas The Girl on the Train had a tight nar­ra­tive struc­ture, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween three char­ac­ters, Into the Wa­ter em­ploys more than a dozen nar­ra­tors, in­clud­ing flash­backs to women who drowned in the pool in 1983, 1920 and 1679 (which may or may not be ex­tracts from Nel’s work-in-progress). The pleas­ing ef­fect is to present a col­lage of an iso­lated com­mu­nity in all its va­ri­ety, al­though the sheer num­ber of voices on dis­play can prove con­fus­ing, es­pe­cially in the early stages.

“Beck­ford is a strange place, full of odd peo­ple, with a down­right bizarre his­tory,” muses DS Erin Mor­gan, an out­sider, who con­tin­ues, “In what­ever di­rec­tion you go, some­how you al­ways end up back at the river.” The first time she sees her in­spec­tor, clad in black, stand­ing by the wa­ter with Nel Ab­bott’s corpse at his feet, she mis­takes him for a priest, and the novel stokes up the ru­ral Gothic and the fate­ful at any op­por­tu­nity. Mostly this makes for an at­mo­spheric read; oc­ca­sion­ally, as in the nar­ra­tive con­tri­bu­tions of an old crone, Nickie Sage, who has sec­ond sight, it has a ripeness redo­lent of Cold Com­fort Farm.

More se­ri­ously, the sheer num­ber and di­ver­sity of nar­ra­tive voices tend to un­der­mine sus­pense and mit­i­gate rev­e­la­tions when they come; cho­rus teeters into ca­coph­ony, and it can feel, struc­turally and tex­tu­rally, as if cru­cial mo­ments aren’t be­ing ac­corded their due. More­over, so many con­tra­dic­tory ver­sions of the same events are pre­sented that it is some­times dif­fi­cult to clar­ify the truth of what has ac­tu­ally oc­curred, which is fine in a lit­er­ary novel but fa­tal in a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller.

On the other hand, the law of di­min­ish­ing plot re­turns that be­sets do­mes­tic sus­pense, whereby the more com­pelling the set-up, the more con­vo­luted and im­plau­si­ble the res­o­lu­tion, does not ap­ply here. Into the Wa­ter ends on an ag­o­nis­ingly som­bre fall, a thren­ody to Hawkins’s vi­sion of the mu­tual in­com­pre­hen­sion and hos­til­ity be­tween the sexes.

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