Every website seems dead set on crowning the song of the summer. Identifying the song is a fool’s errand; the song will present itself when the time comes. What the sunburned people of America need to search for is the Book of the Summer. Book recommendations travel by word of mouth and strategically styled Instagram posts. So far, the Book of the Summer is Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins.
Set in Beckford England, a welcome foil for whatever humidity you might have to deal with, the town is reeling from yet another death. Beckford is notorious for being “a place to get rid of troublesome women.” The cheerfully named “drowning pool” has been the site of multiple suspicious deaths. Nel Abbott’s most recent death seems to be connected to the previous victims of the Drowning Pool. Solving Nel’s mystery might be the solution to past mysteries.
Heraclitus famously said, “You could not step twice into the same river.” The river runs and people change. Into the Water operates on the same principle. The multiple narrators continually change the reader’s perception of characters and their motives. Nel’s daughter, Lena, changes from moody teenager to a vulnerable orphan. Each investigator has varying degrees of trustworthiness. Even Jules, Nel’s sister, makes drastic changes throughout the novel. Ironically, the only thing that stays the same is the river.
While there are many characters to keep track of in the story, the water should get top billing. Hawkins persistently reminds the reader of the river. To some, the river is a frightening reminder of the past, while others gravitate to the sound of rushing water. Characters choke on the water, dip in water, dream of water and submerge themselves into “the murky green.” Detective Sean Townsend is described as having “watery eyes.” Like rose-colored glasses, all the townspeople perceive the world by its relation to the water.
The sound of water in Beckford is relentless and haunting. But, the water isn’t the most dangerous thing in Beckford–it’s the townspeople. There are enough “troublesome women” for Nel to write a book about their deaths. Nel’s manuscript describes Libby’s death in 1679, Lauren’s in 1983 and Katie’s in 2015. These deaths are stories told over and over throughout the town. They are mystical and spell binding. Nickie Sage, an ostracized fortuneteller, is the original keeper of these stories. In my mind’s eye, she looks like the old witch who hands Snow White the poison apple (the text never contradicted this assumption.) Like everyone else in the town, she’s connected to the water. She visits different places near the water to speak to different spirits. The women who have been claimed by the drowning pool aren’t quiet, even after they have dieed. Nickie, bewitched by their voices, uses their spirit to solve the mysteries of their murders.
Into the Water isn’t perfect. The novel tends to drown in its own plot. Because Hawkins throws out so many characters as red herrings, there isn’t enough time for a satisfying resolution. The rushed resolution reminds me of how BRAVO ends most of their shows. At the end of each season of the Real Housewives franchise, each woman is filmed doing something indicative of her personality. The footage freezes and the producers share bullet points about what they’ve been up to since filming stopped. The gimmick is perfect for reality TV, but Hawkins applies the same principle to her story. The conclusion is quick snapshots of where each character is at the end of the story. The format is meant to give a sense of resolution but it just reminds the reader of the quantity of narrators they had to juggle for 400 pages. (At my count, there are ten different narrators.)
Summer is the time to get lost in the tangled plot of a story. Into the Water supplies a gnarled narrative that will keep you occupied whether you are on land or by the water.