There’s a deep place in the river that runs through Beckford where people swim, fish, dive from the high cliff, and lie on the beach and listen to the ubiquitous voice of the water. For many, this place is simply a good swimming hole. For others, especially the women, it’s the “Drowning Pool.” There should be a warning sign at the water’s edge: “Never send to know for whom the water calls; it calls for thee.”
Paula Hawkins’ words are like those massive spiderwebs we run into when we hurry out the front door or run between dead trees in a graveyard, on a foggy night. The spiderwebs startle us, but after looking around nervously, we pull them off our faces and out of our hair and move on.
When the first Beckford woman to drown in the river was found dead in the town’s swimming hole, the news was shocking. As always, when such things (suicides or possible murders) happen, people asked: “why?” The answers were never quite certain or satisfying, so people pulled the spiderweb of shock and sadness out of their hair and moved on.
Then there were more drownings, that place in the drive acquired a whispered name, and in time it became impossible to move on because the voice of the river became harder to ignore and even those who had reason to know “the why” of each death weren’t sure whether they really knew “the why” or were caught in a web of lies, nightmares, premonitions, or the cries of the women’s’ spirits. The strands of the web now had the strength of heavy ropes, perhaps chains, and nobody could move on.
The reader, like any other newcomer to Beckford, is thrown into this twisted dream, and nothing is quite clear because there are so many points of view (a superb idea on Hawkins’ part) and those points of view align with less clarity than the yarn about the blind men trying to describe an elephant based on their impressions of a single leg, tail, or tusk. It’s hard not to ask, “Is everyone in town guilty or are they all simply crazy?”
Hawkins is content to step back from, say, a Stephen King “in your face approach,” and allow the readers and the saner characters time to push through the web of stories that ties the townspeople together. The ending–which some reviewers think was pasted onto the story for want of anything better–was, in fact, pitch perfect. Given what we knew, or thought we knew, it was the only ending that made sense. In fact, it was an epiphany we should have seen coming–but didn’t.
This is a superb thriller, almost an immersion in a drowning pool of dark waters and hidden currents. When we finish the book, we’ll plan to get the story out of our hair in a few days and move on. That probably won’t happen.