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.
“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.”