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The Bookworm: ‘Into the Water’ May Be the Most Unsettling Novel You’ll Read

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“Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins, © 2017, Riverhead Books, $28.00, 389 pages

Danielle “Nel” Abbott didn’t jump.

Then again, maybe she did. Or maybe she merely got careless at the top of the cliff overlooking the river that locals called the Drowning Pool, and she slipped.

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In Paula Hawkins’s novel, “Into the Water,” everybody in the town of Beckford knew Nel was doing research on the pool and the women who died there through the centuries, beginning with the teenager accused of witchcraft. Nel’s own drowning in the pool would’ve been the last chapter.

For the people of Beckford, Nel’s death might’ve been just another unfortunate part of the Drowning Pool legend, just a sad single mother who had too much to drink … except that Katie Whittaker went into the river just weeks before. Poor Katie had loaded her backpack with stones and drowned herself one summer afternoon. Her family, of course, still grieved – as did her best friend, Lena, Nel’s daughter, who knew exactly why it happened.

Jules Abbott hadn’t spoken to her sister in years. She hardly knew Nel anymore, not since they were kids, not since Nel betrayed Jules in the most horrible way. They’d never really been close anyhow, and that estrangement complicated things: as Lena’s next of kin, Jules was faced with raising a fifteen-year-old she barely knew, a girl who seemed to hate her.

And so Jules began talking to the ghost of her sister. Nickie Sage, the “psychic” in town, said she couldn’t reach Nel clearly, but Jules could. She felt Nel’s presence in the house, in the town, by the river. She could hear Nel’s voice, and the words Nel wrote in her manuscript: “Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women.”

For the first many pages, reading “Into the Water” is a lot like looking up toward the surface from the bottom of a lake: everything’s murky and slow and you really can’t quite make out who or what you’re seeing. Slowly, though (ever-so-slowly), author Paula Hawkins pulls readers up through the depths, character by clue, until we’re grounded and panting from the adrenaline rush that is this novel.

Indeed, it’s difficult to tell which is more heart-pounding: the eerie ghost-filled past that haunts Beckford, or the creepy residents who seem to know a little bit too much about one another. Both, perhaps, added to the universal fear of drowning, make this a novel that will literally keep you guessing (and shivering) until the very last chapter.

Hawkins is the author of “The Girl on the Train,” another quirky where “whodunnit” is only part of the story – what was done and why takes some figuring out. You may struggle with the beginning of “Into the Water,” but stick with it. It takes awhile to get into but once you do, this is the most unsettling book you’ll read this spring. For you, novel lover, reading “Into the Water” is a dream.

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Terri Schlichenmeyer

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Her self-syndicated book reviews appear in more than 260 newspapers.

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