Number of pages: 410
I meant to read this book for a while, having enjoyed The Girl on the Train; I got a Kindle deal to buy this for 99p, so bought it and prioritised it on my reading list. I did read negative reactions to this, but didn't let that put me off.
First off, this has a lot more characters in than Hawkins' previous novel; it is set in a small town, which put me in mind of Linwood Barclay's Promise Falls novels. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, much like the Song of Ice and Fire books.
The premise is that an aspiring writer, Nel Abbott, has died falling into the notorious "drowning pool", which has apparently been the scene of a series of deaths, which seem to include suicides and even alleged witches being ducked in the middle ages.
It turns out that Nel upset a lot of people in town, mostly with the research she was doing for her unpublished book about all the people who died from falling into the drowning pool; two of the main characters in the book have family members who also died in this manner. So, the main plot of the story is about Nel's sister Jules attempting to find out if the death was suicide or murder (you will probably guess which one it was).
I didn't enjoy this book as much as The Girl on the Train, and the enormous number of points of view made it feel a bit too ambitious for its own good. I noticed the chapters were all written in different styles, so if they revolved around a fairly minor character, it would be told in the standard third person narrative, while other characters narrated their own chapters in the first person. Any chapter that revolved around Jules was told in the second person, with Jules directly addressing her dead sister; this got confusing when she started "telling" Nel about conversations she had with other characters, which at one point had me backtracking to see if it was Jules talking about her sister, or quoting one of the other characters.
The plot also jumped back and forth in time too, with flashbacks to Jules and Nells' youth and their relationship (it talks about Jules being overweight as a kid and getting body shamed), and it also had excepts from Nell's book, which tell about all the previous deaths in the drowning pool. At times, it also told the same scenario from the points of view of multiple characters in different chapters. I noticed a few times that the narrative over-used "he and she" a bit too much, until I had to go back to check who "he" and "she" were.
Overall, I wasn't overly thrilled at the writing style, and there were some moments when the dialogue just seemed poor; there were a couple of sentences that were written in a way that almost felt cryptic, and I wondered why they couldn't have been written a bit more clearly. Also, it felt at times that the book could have been cut down by at least a fifth by not having the characters talk over and over about things that had been established, just so they could explain these to other characters (I wondered if Paula Hawkins thought her audience would forget things easily); plus, there were some long-winded bits with characters talking about their feelings.
I noticed one plot thread that seemed to be left hanging at the end (I got the impression that another character got brutally murdered, but this wasn't made explicit; maybe Paula Hawkins wants to write a whole book about this).
You do have to read this book all the way to the final paragraph, which just about saves this book from feeling like a huge let-down; spoilers ahead.
[Spoiler (click to open)]
Near the end, we discover that Nel approached a man called Sean about his mother's death in the drowning pool; this made other members of his family angry because of her invasion of their privacy. This somehow led to Nel and Sean having an affair. The blame falls on Helen, who I think is Sean's wife (although I'd thought she was his sister at first, thanks to one of the more confusing paragraphs in the book), but then Sean's father Patrick says the he was the killer. Patrick is also the most dislikeable character in the whole book; he is said to have beaten his son at one point.
It first felt like an anti-climatic ending, which didn't really compare to the denouement of "The Girl on the Train", but if you can get past several chapters which just appear to be to provide closure to the individual characters' stories, there is a bit of a twist, and one that had be going back a few pages to check what I'd read).
As I understood it, from re-reading the last few paragraphs, Sean was the real killer, pushing Nel into the drowning pool after her advances became too much for him; Patrick was just covering for him. It was unexpected, and I found myself thinking more of this book than I otherwise would have.
Hopefully, Paula Hawkins will stick to stand-alone books and not try to be too ambitious next time.
Next book: 3001: The Final Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)