I’m trying to understand what it is I ‘ve loved about the follow up from Paula Hawkins to The Girl on the Train. Without spoilers, as far as possible as I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So there’s nothing about individual characters and plot points here – only generalities about theme and structure and genre.
Val McDermid has some reservations which she discussed here in her Guardian review.
There are eleven narrators for one – some in first person, and some in third. It’s a bit confusing and I did have to flick back and forth trying to work out whose point of view I was in, and at what point in the timeline. The voices are not particularly individualised.
There’s a lot of shenanigans that feel perilously close to cheating in the way information is with-held from the reader to maintain suspense and surprise. This definitely includes a few circumlocutions which dragged this reader right out of the story for moment. However, some of them are maybe psychologically within the realms of possibility, so I wouldn’t dismiss them all as outright cheating.
I’m not sure about the setting – I agree with McDermid that it seemed randomly rural town. I don’t know the area concerned though, so it didn’t really trouble me.
So yes, I think Val McDermid’s review is perfectly fair. Of course it would be – who knows the genre of crime fiction better?
And yet, in spite of all that, I still loved the novel. And I’m trying to analyse why.
Perhaps it’s not really a psychological thriller. Not in the sense of “transcending the genre” – a phrase so condescending to crime fiction lovers that it makes my teeth itch like a squeaky chalk on a blackboard.
It seems to me that it’s a deep novel about memory, and truth and lies. About miscommunication. And about how all those things are complicated by different points of view.
Those narrators are essential to the structure because the novelists is telling us about tragedies which have deeply affected several families, and a whole community. It’s almost a realistic way of telling the story, as clearly because of all those secrets and lies and miscommunications, no one knows the whole story, although it is gradually pieced together.
There’s one point in the story where a major character finally tells the truth about something which happened to her and you think hurray – but still, it ends up being misunderstood and complicating things even more. And I think there’s some real psychological insight here – we see people projecting things that have happened to them onto other people. Making assumptions based on their own personal experiences and prejudices. There’s a lot about mysogyny and difficult women – from the point of view of a whole range of people – young and old, male and female. There’s a reason why the novel starts with a shocking and graphic disposal of a witch being drowned – although it’s left an open question whether the modern day psychic is really talking to the dead, or if it’s all a psychological phenomenon. But it does all add to the gothic feel of the novel.
The misunderstandings are not always deliberate. Sometimes it’s a question of motivated reasoning – to avoid being confronted by one’s own complicity. Sometimes it’s naivety, and simple lack of experience, or a lack of imagination and empathy.
There’s an exploration of the idea that a good person might have at times acted badly, or a bad person done some things for good reasons. None of the characters is wholly sympathetic – no matter what horrors they have been through. There was just one character I found deeply unpleasant and saw no redeeming features in – but only one. Other readers may have a different experience.
If anything, the novel is spoiled by shoehorning it into the necessary structure for a psychological thriller, because at that point it startes to lose nuance, and the twist I’ve been expecting isn’t really a surprise in spite of those avoidances and circumlocutions. So for me it wasn’t a particularly satisfying payoff. It’s a bit strange to enjoy all of a psychological thriller apart from the last couple of chapters – so that’s what prompted me to spend a bit more time thinking about it.
Who dunnit has never really interested me as much as why, so perhaps my response is not so surprising. And suspense odoesn’t have to be about who to be a compelling read.
I always go back to this Hitchcock quotation –
“One of the most essential things in a film is visual clarity. I think an audience should be given all the facts. For example if you take suspense – suspense can only be achieved by telling the audience as much as you can, I don’t deal in mystery – I never make whodunnits, because they’re intellectual exercises. You’re just wondering – you’re not emoting. My old analogy of the bomb. As an example, we couold be blown up this minute and the audience would get five seconds of shock. But if we tell them five minutes ahead of time there is a bomb that’s going to go off, that would get five minutes of suspense. and we didn’t have suspense before, because the audience were in ignorance, you see.”
I wonder, now, if all those with-holdings and circumlocutions were necessary for this novel to work. It might perhaps have been a better novel without them. Maybe a second reading, now that I know what was being held back, would make that clear.
Still, even though I wasn’t surprised by the twisty ending, I was certainly emoting like crazy. There were characters I cared about – some more than others, which with eleven narrators is pretty much bound to be the case. And there were a couple who I think might have been more developed.
I think Into The Water might actually be a far more interesting novel than Girl on a Train because it isn’t a standard psychological thriller. It’s trying, and in some ways succeeding, to do something more.
Neil Gaiman said a novel is a long piece of prose which has something wrong with it.
What is often missed, I think, when we criticise any novel is how easy it is to pick out those things which are wrong.
And yet what we might like about a novel are those things which are right about it, even while we can see the flaws.
Not unlike the way we can clearly see the imperfections in that special person and yet still love them.
Yes, that’s it. I loved this novel – warts and all.
Guardian : Val McDermid review
Hitchcock quotation on YouTube