Will Into the Water be yet another best-seller... or will it simply sink leaving scarcely a ripple behind?
After the runaway success of The Girl on the Train, author Paula Hawkins’ next novel is about to hit the shelves, but can she emulate her first class debut thriller?
No book is more eagerly awaited this year than Paula Hawkins's follow-up to The Girl on the Train. It has sold close to 20 million copies worldwide since its publication in January 2015 - while last year's film adaptation, starring Emily Blunt, has grossed some £139m.
The pent-up demand is terrific. TGOTT was Paula Hawkins's first stand-alone thriller (she had previously published four chick-lit novels under the pseudonym Amy Silver, the first, in 2011, called Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista) - and fans of the book have been sitting on their hands waiting for their next read while Hawkins worked on the follow-up.
Actually, that's not quite true. (Trust no one.) In the intervening two years there has been an explosion of "Girl" novels hitting the bookshops, as entrepreneurial hacks rush to fill the gap that Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and TGOTT opened up. All assiduously use multiple unreliable narrators to conduct their readers into a twisty world of lies, deception and extreme nastiness between the sexes. Most of them have the button-pushing words "girl" or "sister" or "lie" in the title.
At first the genre was known by the dignified name of "domestic noir". Then that got shortened to "grip-lit". Increasingly, what this peculiar kind of thriller looks like is post-truth fiction. Fake, even.
For, to keep on twisting the knife and shocking expectations, these novels have had to get ever more ingeniously vile and deceitful. In one prize example this year, the woman who pretends to be a friend to the heroine is not only lying (of course) but turns out not even to be a woman at all but a gay man who has supernaturally hijacked a woman's body. So, while Hawkins has been hors de combat, her substitutes have become more baroque, as they compete for shocks and sales. Yet the market is far from sated. "The popularity of psychological thrillers showed little sign of abating at the London Book Fair, with a slew of titles signed up," the trade mag The Bookseller reported last week. Publishers may not be proud of them - many secretly think they demean women - but they sell.
And now here, at last, is Hawkins's own second novel. Into the Water is scheduled for publication on May 2 and will be supported by a huge media campaign. Just like TGOTT, the film rights for Into the Water have been bought before publication by DreamWorks in a pre-emptive deal. So, more or less regardless of the book's quality, it is going to be a huge publishing event.
It has already been circulating widely in proof and it is not under embargo. So what has Hawkins done? Her publisher would no doubt have liked her to have stuck as closely to the TGOTT template as possible. The Train on the Girl, perhaps, or The Girl on the Tram? Either would have been highly acceptable.
But she has not obliged. Into the Water is a differently ambitious book. It generalises the case of delusion and nastiness. Hawkins has said that TGOTT came to her through "thinking about someone who had memory problems as a result of drink, the way that if you can't remember your actions, it changes your relationship to those actions and your sense of guilt and responsibility, and it makes you vulnerable and easily manipulated". Fair enough. Rachel caned it, all right.
Into the Water is also about fallible memory but on a much larger scale. It's about how entire lives can be distorted by false memories. Everybody can be their own unreliable narrator, in other words.
Her statement this time is grander, saying that she finds "something irresistible about the stories we tell ourselves, the way voices and truths can be hidden consciously or unconsciously, memories can be washed away and whole histories submerged". A big theme, then.
The setting is Northumberland, a country town called Beckford, where the river boasts a sinister "Drowning Pool" in which supposed witches were drowned in the 17th century and where many women have died over the years since. As the novel opens, a 15-year-old girl, Katie, has recently drowned there - as has middle-aged Nel Abbot, who had long been fascinated by the Drowning Pool and was working on a book about its tragic history.
Nel's long estranged, childless younger sister, Jules, returns to Beckford to take care of her teenage niece, Lena, who was Katie's friend - and she begins to uncover an incredible morass of tangled nastiness lurking in the community, going far back into the past, including into her own childhood, which she begins to realise she has herself tragically misunderstood and misremembered.
There are rapes and murders. There's a spooky old lady who communicates with the dead and a generous serving of horrible men, including a self-excusing paedophile who rejoices in being able so easily to manipulate "older women, the wrong side of 35, losing their looks", and a brute who chortles about raping a 13-year-old as "popping her cherry".
We learn that "Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women." Not a single man is good.
That all sounds fine and dandy. Unfortunately, Into the Water turns out to be hard work. There's a ridiculous multiplication of narrators from the start, some first-person, others third, so that on first reading it, it is almost impossible to keep track of who's who and what relation they have to one another.
The interconnections in Beckford turn out to be almost incomprehensibly complex but, even so, several of the stories never really cohere. It is a mare's-nest ("a supposedly worthwhile discovery that turns out to have no real value").
Hawkins is writing here about the difficulty of making sense of your story when you have only partial, false or suppressed memories of its key events.
The characters keep reminding us of that theme by saying things like "really, what did she know about the truth? They were all just telling stories", and so forth. But to present such confusions clearly the novel needs to have the utmost perspicacity itself. Instead, it is all muddly - Proust is pellucid in comparison.
So, far from needing to be beware of spoilers in approaching this novel, you find yourself longing for a prefatory family tree-type diagram, clarifying who all the people are, as provided for long 19th-century novels.
Perhaps Hawkins's fans will find it more rewarding, or at least easier to follow. The 50-odd reviews, based on preview copies that have been posted so far on the Goodreads site have been far from universally delighted. "Part one of this story is indescribably boring." "Really had a hard time getting through." "Sort of a mess." "Confusing and jarring." "I disliked the introduction of so many characters and perspectives early on." "A fairly mundane small-town semi-mystery." "Mehhhhhh."
Mehhhhhh! Still, who can you trust? No one. Maybe not even me.
Into the Water is published by Doubleday at £20 on May 2
Hitch a ride with other gripping reads
After the runaway success of The Girl on the Train, author Paula Hawkins's next novel is about to hit the shelves, but can she emulate her first class debut novel? By David Sexton
If Paula Hawkins (who has reportedly been earning £10m a year since The Girl on the Train was published) can't replicate her success with her difficult second album of a novel, there are plenty of other wannabe grippers out there.
The bookshops are flooded with domest ic noir this year. The publishing production cycle takes a while to get into gear but then the herd instinct kicks in. That ensures that about two years after any huge success like TGOTT, the shelves are stacked with lookalikes.
There are now hundreds of stories of drunken, deluded, damaged or jealous women getting into terrible trouble, all jostling for attention. Here are the ones everyone's reading now.
Behind Her Eyes
by Sarah Pinborough
Two narrators, Louise and Adele, are both after the same man, David. Louise, a podgy single mum, is David's PA. One day she bumps into pretty, sleek Adele and they become friends, Adele helping Louise to make the most of herself, lose some weight, dress better. What Louise doesn't know yet is that Adele is David's wife… Which player here is truly sinister? David? Or one of the ladies?
The Woman in Cabin 10
by Ruth Ware
Alcoholic travel journalist Lo, already on the verge of collapse after a burglary in her north London flat, sets off on a luxurious press trip, a cruise to Norway on the maiden voyage of a lavishly equipped boutique liner. But perhaps all is not what it seems? Does she witness a murder on board? Or, being so addled, is she getting it all wrong?
Sometimes I Lie
by Alice Feeney
Thirty-five-year-old Amber wakes up in hospital after an accident. But is she actually awake? She can't move, speak, open her eyes or remember what happened. Obviously. Hubbie, sis, mum and dad all crowd round for chatty bedside visits, believing her to be in a coma, while she can only listen, with that slightly sinking feeling. Gradually, the memories begin to drip-feed back. Who's to say which ones are right? Uh-oh.
by JS Monroe
(Head of Zeus, £12.99)
Rosa, a brilliant Cambridge student, jumped off Cromer pier and disappeared - but five years later her boyfriend Jar can't accept that she's gone and becomes obsessed with proving that she is still alive. So, is she really dead? Or can some evil genius be playing the cruellest games? Which of these alternatives would make the more interesting thriller, do you think?
The Girl Before
by JP Delaney
A bright young couple with a troubled past move into a beautiful house in Spitalfields, which is so pared down it doesn't even have a doorbell or wall lights. Ecstatic, they move in, but before long it seems as if the house may be hiding a secret. Its handsome architect, Edward, is distinctly dodgy too. Film rights have been snapped up by Michael Fifty Shades de Luca, so it's a possible new TGOTT on-screen, too.