Book review: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is a gamble that does not quite pay off

It is not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but Hawkins tells a mystery from mutiple viewpoints. 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. Courtesy Penguin UK
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It is, without question, the most eagerly awaited novel of the year. Paula Hawkins has been the very definition of a publishing sensation since her psychological drama The Girl on the Train was published in 2015.

It sold a staggering 15 million copies, spawned a well-received film adaptation, and no doubt gave a writer who had previously turned out unsatisfying chick-lit cause to question quite how she could follow such incredible success.

Into the Water suggests that Hawkins is clearly not interested in simply repeating a formula that inspired a whole new genre: the domestic thriller, or grip-lit, if you will.

Structurally, this is a much more ambitious book. It starts with a woman, Nel Abbott, who is found dead in a river in a spooky northern English town. It quickly emerges she is not the first person to meet a watery grave in Beckford. The mystery spirals out from this “did she fall or was she pushed” puzzle, and it is to Hawkins’s credit that she attempts to tell the story from multiple viewpoints.

It is not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it is nonetheless good to see a bestselling author grappling with different viewpoints, and the ways in which they continuously change our perceptions of her characters’ motivations.

The problem is that there are 11 of these characters. This is far too many and Hawkins battles to make these slightly troubled people distinct from one another.

You genuinely have to keep looking for the name at the top of each page to check whose story you are in.

In addition, the various ways in which Beckford’s men are revealed to be terrible human beings also becomes faintly ridiculous.

In addition, while The Girl on the Train had a certain kind of plausibility in its very focused suburban setting, the whole "death stalks a strange northern-English town" device feels incredibly well-worn.

There is, of course, pleasure to be had in theorising who is responsible, but Into the Water struggles to ring true.

A police officer gets it spot on when she says: "How is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It's like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings."

This suggests Hawkins knew exactly how Into the Water might be perceived, but went for it anyway. This is a gamble that does not quite pay off – but then, being one of the most well-paid authors of 2016 gives you a certain leeway.