Into the Water by Paula Hawkins - review

Runaway train: Paula Hawkins: AP

Replicating the success of The Girl on the Train was never going to be easy for Paula Hawkins, not least because of the deluge of grip-lit from a thousand copycat authors desperate to cash in on the formula pioneered by Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl.

Literary editors are knee-deep in books whose murky covers boast every kind of unreliable narrator, from murderous husbands and lying sisters to vengeful mothers and missing children. Some losses of memory are so extreme because the characters are actually dead, reminiscing from beyond the grave.

So the question is how much further would Hawkins have to go to pull off her follow-up? The answer is pretty much all the way. Into the Water is altogether more ambitious than TGOTT, with a much bigger cast of characters, a historical element — witches — and not just your basic twist but a continuum of twists that, well, keep on twisting.

Set in a village called Beckford near Newcastle, the story revolves around a stretch of river known as the Drowning Pool. In previous centuries witches were drowned there but its most recent casualty is Nel Abbott, a middle-aged woman who may have fallen in by accident, may have killed herself, or may have been pushed.

Her daughter, angry, disaffected 15-year-old Lena, thinks she jumped, while Nel’s estranged sister Jules, returning to Beckford for the first time in years, isn’t so sure.

There have been other mishaps too. Months earlier Lena’s best friend Katie died, apparently a suicide, while Lauren, who drowned in the pool 30 years earlier, was seen by her own son jumping to her death. Or so the story goes. There have been other mysterious drownings too, which Abbott had been researching when she died.

Hawkins has arranged her narrative into short, bitty chapters, sometimes only a page or two long, which flip between at least 14 characters, some of whom narrate, others whose stories are told in the third person. Reviewers’ opinions vary on the exact number; regardless, readers will have to work hard to figure out who’s who and to remember what his or her relationship is to the next person.

The men are without exception nasty. One turns out to be a rapist, another a paedophile, another a wife-beater and so on, but then men behaving badly — especially towards women — is another hardcore grip-lit device, since the genre is written mostly by and for women. Not that the female characters, who frequently hiss and catcall each other names like “stupid b****” and “f****** narcissist”, are much better.

As each character’s back story is gradually revealed, it turns out that an unusally large number of their memories are false ones. In all the confusion, the only certainty is that almost everyone in the village hated Nel Abbott.

Film rights have been snapped up, natch, and the book is doubtless bound for bestsellerdom. But Hawkins’s device of using her characters’ false memories to keep twisting the direction of the plot does overstretch credibility. Will her legion of fans be disappointed ? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

£10, Amazon, Buy it now