Box Ticked: A book that scares you
Paula Hawkin’s debut novel “The Girl on the Train” divided my book club. They either loved it or hated it. Always wanting to be my own person, I had a love-hate relationship with it. I loved the premise (I am definitely one for people-watching and making up
imaginary lives for them in my head – although definitely not to a stalker degree), I loved the style (fast-paced and gritty), I loved the setting (having lived in London for a short period I always love a bit of nostalgia); but I loathed the main character, Rachel. I think maybe it’s because I don’t drink, and Rachel drank A LOT! She was also annoyingly pathetic. There’s only so much wallowing in self-pity I can take and I myself am a real wallower. But anyway, the big takeaway from “The Girl on the Train” is that in a Paula Hawkin’s novel, everyone is going to have secrets!
Although also a suspenseful, psychological thriller, “Into the Water” has a very different feel to “The Girl on the Train”. Although I probably could have read it in one sitting – it does grip you and pull you in – like the slow winding river at the story’s core, the narrative unveils itself at a much slower pace and you find yourself wanting to turn the pages slowly and unravel the mystery gradually. It’s hard to know where the story begins but we’ll start with Julia (or Jules). She grew up spending summers in the Old Mill House in the small northern village of Beckford. Beckford doesn’t have much, except for a river, and a disturbing history of women who have lost their lives to it. Julia’s older sister Nel, with whom she had a torrid relationship, was obsessed with the river and its secrets; and has now become part of its mystery herself – she has fallen victim to the river.
They say she jumped, but Jules knows that Nel would never have jumped – even though she left her a panicked and distressing voicemail just days before her death, a plea that Jules ignored. Dragged back to Beckford and memories that Jules has spent years trying to forget, she must try push all of that aside to look after Lena, the teenage daughter that Nel has left behind, who seems convinced that her mom did jump, and is struggling to come to terms with feelings of abandonment. Nel was far from popular in the small town, where she was working on a book detailing its history, specifically that of the river and the mystery surrounding why it attracted such hopelessness and despair. She was not short of enemies, is it possible there is something more sinister to her death?
The story is told from the perspective of each of the characters, whose lives become more and more enmeshed as the story progresses. It is told with such grace and dexterity that Hawkin’s really does have you guessing from page to page who is embroiled with who; who knows what; who jumped and who was pushed? Once again, the characters are flawed, but not beyond hope. Jules suffered intense trauma as a child, while staying in the old Mill House, that is so inter-woven into her relationship with her sister Nel, she has somehow never been able to overcome it, and now she must face the reality that she will never have the opportunity to. We only know Nel through her description from others and the picture painted is a complex one. It is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions, and I love this. In fact, there are so many moral grey areas in this novel, your heart could grow weary if you let it.
I categorised this as “a book that scares you” because I tried to read it last year, but I had to stop. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the book itself, but as you may know if you have read some of my other blog posts, I lost my best friend to suicide last year and the subject matter was hitting a little too close to home. When I couldn’t decide whether or not I was ready to give it another go, a lady in my book club took my hand and said something that she said my mom had told her about the book when she was struggling with it herself: “Not everyone jumped, and not everyone was pushed.” I was scared going in, but that gave me hope. Right down to the last page, I wanted to know everyone’s story.
Ultimately, I felt that this was a book about love; about who we love and why; and about what love makes us capable of doing. There was one particular passage that stood out for me that I wanted to share:
p.210 “Lena sat motionless, staring at the river outside the window, not crying and not speaking. I had nothing to say to her, no way of reaching her. I recognised in her something I used to have too, something maybe everyone has at that age, some essential unknowability. I thought how odd it was that parents believe they know their children, understand their children. Do they not remember what it was like to be eighteen, or fifteen, or twelve? Perhaps having children makes you forget being one.” Jules
Although Jules is speaking specifically about the unknowability of teenagers, I don’t think it’s something we ever grow out of. I think that, no matter how much you love a person, you can never truly know them, and so when something as awful as a suicide happens, you can never blame yourself, no matter how close you were to the person. They had that unknowability about them. Something that you couldn’t touch; that you couldn’t reach; that you couldn’t fix. No matter how much you loved them.
It’s a little bit of a scary read, but it’s a rewarding read. They didn’t all jump and they weren’t all pushed.