Into The Water by Paula Hawkins

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Feels like: Rehashing the folklore-like details of your hometown hauntings to friends of friends over late night drinks.

Song Pairing: Riverside by Agnes Obel

“Some say the women left something of themselves in the water; some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters.” 

Danielle Abbott is an exotic, artistic, eccentric woman with a penchant for melancholic stories. Her and her sister, Julia, spent summers growing up by the Drowning Pool, a section of the town river which notoriously sucks troublesome women down to their watery graves. Intoxicated by the essence of Shakespearian tragedy that hovers like a palpitating fog over the body of water, Nell decides to write a novel about the haunting stories of murdered and suicidal women who have been claimed by the Drowning Pool. That is, until the Drowning Pool claims Nell.

There are a lot of players to this tale, each one affected in one way or another by the dismal reach of the tireless lake. Hawkins takes us rapidly from one mind to the next, so quickly that the beginning of the novel becomes a blur of motivations, suspicions, fears and horrifying bedtime stories.

Julia, Nell’s sister, hasn’t spoken to Nell in years because of perceived slights that come to light as the story progresses. She returns to town to take care of Nell’s daughter, Lena, who is a fearsome teenage girl hell-bent on keeping the secrets of the dead. Good guy cop Sean Townsend takes the lead in the investigation of Nell’s fated fall from the cliffside, while his wife Helen avoids his touch and sleeps in another room every night. Patrick Townsend, Sean’s father, is the grizzled former policeman whose wife was claimed by the same Drowning Pool years ago, when Sean was just a little boy who watched his own mother jump.

Louise lost her daughter, Katie, to the lake six months prior to Nell’s death. Katie was Lena’s best friend in the entire world, and Louise is convinced that Lena and her recently deceased mother know more than they’re letting on. In one of the most haunting and beautiful scenes I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time, Katie ends her young life by taking a walk to the lake at night. As she walked she gathered stones for her pockets and back pack, and didn’t stop walking when she reached the lakeside. Katie was a happy-go-lucky fifteen year old girl, so what drove her to suicide? The siren choir of the nameless women who were drowned in that same spot during the Salem-era witch scare? Louise won’t rest until she knows what took her daughter, so she can seek vengeance like only a mother can. Nickie, the town’s old eccentric psychic, knows the truth–but no one listens to the ravings of a madwoman.

It would be unfair for me to rate a novel like this, because it does me the great service of combining practically everything I like in this world: mystery, murder, witchcraft, troublesome women, haunted lakes, melancholic symbolism, and Shakespeare. All of this combined was bound to make me salivate all the way through the book, overlooking many of the problematic plot points (there are essentially two important plot lines happening at once, but their intersection is weak and they end up losing their potency by feeling like two separate novels) and extraneous characters (the character of outsider female cop Erin is supposed to provide a voice the reader can inhabit, but it’s unsuccessful because she’s so unimportant to the plot.)

The only problem Paula Hawkins ever has is editing. She could sheer off a lot of this novel and hammer it down to a concise, pristine, perfect little droplet of misery, but I’m almost glad she didn’t. It’s just as convoluted as the river that she describes with such daunting accuracy, making you feel like you’re channeling the ghostly voices of the long dead, that you’re in an old house sinking into the mud, tasting the silt in your mouth.

Paula Hawkins’ didn’t so much write a novel as she wove a tapestry to lay over Ophelia’s pallid face. As Hamlet stands down stage and spouts soliloquies, Ophelia slips away, weighs her body down in flowers and drowns herself to be rid of the torrid loneliness of a life without agency. Into the Water argues that perhaps Ophelia drowned because she loved Hamlet, not in spite of her love for Hamlet. Does love absolve us from being held accountable for the things we’ve done? One of the male characters plays the Hamlet (I won’t tell, but you’ll guess relatively quickly) and the question is posed, “wondering whether [he’d] managed to convince himself that being in love absolved him” from the terrible things he’d done. Too often, love is used as an excuse, as an easily justifiable madness.

But troublesome women do not need excuses, and neither does Ophelia.

Memorable Quotes:

“Well, her dancing days were over, but, pain or no pain, she decided she would make it to the river that night. She wanted to feel them up close, all those troublesome women, those troublesome girls, dangerous and vital. She wanted to feel their spirit, to bathe in it.”

 

Fractured by Catherine McKenzie

fractured-by-catherine-mckenzieFeels like: Passing notes back and forth to your friend in high school about how much you hate that “one girl.”

Song Pairing:I Still Wait For You” by XYLO

Nobody really likes Julie Prentice. At least that’s what it seems like to Julie Prentice. Best-selling author of the thrilling novel The Murder Game, she’s racking in the dollars and the fame, but along with all the accolades comes a psychotic former acquaintance turned stalker. Crazy Heather just won’t leave Julie alone, so Julie and her handsome husband and children pack up their life and move to the suburbs of Cincinnati.

Across the street lives a handsome man named John who immediately notices Julie. John’s got a lovely wife and two children, but boy does he seem unnaturally and electrically drawn to Julie. Their friendship causes a stir in the neighborhood and begins an onslaught of I Love Lucy-level accidents on Julie’s end. Julie feels as if she literally thinks negative things into happening–so much so that she’s alienating herself from the new neighborhood, pissing off the controlling PTA Neighborhood Watch mom Cindy, inspiring paranoia in John’s wife, all while still reeling from remnants of trauma her stalker Heather ingrained in her.

This novel wants to be fractured, but it’s more broken than that. There is a Thanksgiving-feast sized cornucopia of unmet expectations. The ending that McKenzie teases us with in time jumps between John and the impending doom of a court date, where we have to assume something incredibly tragic has happened that we won’t know until the very end, is not terribly unexpected or even interesting. It barely registers as a talking point.

What McKenzie does do is present us with some incredibly flawed characters that you actually like. Julie, in spite of her “I’m gorgeous, but broken, and super clumsy in an endearing way” trope feels like a fleshed out character, and I can see her as a real woman I know and can sympathize with. John is also subtly fleshed out, at once a protective father, a philandering husband, helplessly adrift in shades of grey, but entirely likable.

I didn’t miss the point of the novel here–secrets, secrets, secrets. I wanted to read Julie Prentice (Apple’s) novel The Murder Game more than Fractured; the novel that creates such turmoil in Julie’s life is also her catharsis. She knows that her and her college “friends”, a Cruel Intentions-inspired prep group indulging in sex and drugs to the fullest extent, were pretty alienating to outsiders like Heather. But their little think-tank game of “who would be the easiest to murder, and how would you do it?” might have gone too far. Julie wrote her novel from real life experience, and Heather knows the truth that Julie is suppressing. Sadly enough, this plot feels a distant second to the Cincinnati neighborhood blunders, the social missteps, the paranoia and the really, really obvious red herrings that McKenzie attempts to trick us with.

Memorable Quotes:

“Everyone’s life has its complications. Sometimes you get to choose them, and sometimes they’re thrust upon you. The trick is knowing which is which.”

“There are so many versions of the truth, I’ve found. One for each person. But the whole truth? No one ever tells the whole truth. Do they?”

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Feels like: Walking alone through a shaded wood for hours, no end in sight, without smiling.

Song pairing: “Wolves” by Phosphorescence

“Instead I stood under scalding water in the shower for one magnificent minute, letting needles of water pluck open some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I didn’t know I had felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing coming already.”

If God exists, how does He let these kinds of things happen? This skeptical but familiar question is the skeletal structure of Emily Fridlund’s coming of age novel.

Linda is a 14 year old girl living with her family in the boggy Minnesota woods. Their home was once a crowded, bustling commune full of hippies and their group-raised children, but differences of opinion disintegrated the commune and Linda, her mother and father are all that remain. Linda is raised with an admirable affinity for naturalist survival, animals and the woods, often taking long walks and paddling out onto the lake for a sense of connection. She has a distinct lack of friends and her inability to relate to other people is a fine point to her love of animals: she feels closer to wolves than humans.

Plot points: Linda’s high school gets a new teacher who may be spending too much time eyeing his young students. New neighbors build a summer home across the lake, a young woman and her 3-year-old son, Paul. Linda begins to babysit for the affluent neighbors, prematurely slinking into the husk of another life like sinking into a warm bath. Of course, the perfect-seeming family is anything but.  Linda muses in one of her frequent time leaps that this story is her attempt to explain human evil.

Growing up “odd” or “different” is not unfamiliar territory for a coming-of-age novel, but Linda is a very special kind of narrator; she can tell us her story, she can reveal her nuanced motivations, we can experience the time-jumping memory-wash that takes us through the awkward high school moments, the desperate shuffle to feel connected to her mother, the charming yet utterly misguided obsession with her neighbors and their perfect nuclear world; we can experience the crushing blow of totally preventable loss, but we still never get to know Linda.

Linda is still a white sheet tacked up on the wall by good intentions. History of Wolves is a constellation of lonely people motivated by their need to live their lives the way they imagine it best, either through the acceptance of their darker urges, through religion, through a blind dedication to the way things “have always been.” The projector plays on Linda, but when the film turns off, she’s still just a blank white sheet.

I think the only part of this novel that will really stick with me is Linda’s relationship with her father. It’s so poignant, trusting but turbulent, a boat lashed to shore on unsteady waters. You imagine both of them reaching out to each other to the best of their abilities, but never knowing exactly how to cross the divide. So much is said in their silences.

Memorable Quotes:

“I could still climb into my father’s lap in my cotton nightgown and pretend I was smaller, a little girl he could hold and protect–or better yet, a piece of equipment he could use, a wonderful worn tool that needed tending, like the tape measure he returned with such care to his leather belt.”