Mystery can be a difficult genre to write. An author needs to strike a good balance between giving clues while not making things too predictable and adding twists that make sense but are not there merely for shock value. Now see, this book is marketed as a mystery thriller, and while it definitely follows the usual format and has some thrills near the end, as a mystery novel it falls a little flat.
Both the perpetrator and the red herrings meant to throw readers off are extremely obvious and it’s easy to guess many of the twists in the novel well ahead of time. I realized pretty quickly that the story doesn’t focus so much on the who, but the book makes the reader ask a lot of other questions. Why do women in this little town keep ending up dead in the water? How are these deaths connected and what does it mean for the town?
This book surprised me because I was expecting a standard mystery thriller that presents readers with a puzzle to figure out while sniffing clues. What I got instead was a conversation about misogyny, about the balance of power between men and women that are handled exceptionally well.
Over centuries women have been found drowned in the local river, mostly suicide but in older times murdered after being accused witchcraft. It’s very obvious that the men hold all of the power in this town even up until the present day. Even when they continue to do wrong over and over again they get away with it with no guilt, no repercussions, it wasn’t their fault and they believe it wholeheartedly. A mindset that can be afforded to someone through privilege. So you end up with a town full of men who can’t see the way that they wield power because they never have to take responsibility for it.
“No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day.”
There is an insane amount of victim blaming in this story that was so brutal but also rang so true to life. Time and time again women are pegged as witches, as insane, as harlots, as busybodies that were sticking their noses where it didn’t belong, and so on. The women who are quiet, fearful, that let themselves be controlled by other people are the ones that are viewed as good women, but what does it even mean to be a good woman anyway? Or a bad woman for that matter.
Take the most recent victim Nel for example, a single mother who wouldn’t allow herself to be cowed by any man. Want to guess how she is described by the town over the course of the novel? Cruel, hubris, liar, slut, obsessed, irresponsible, dangerous. The question is–was she any of those things? All of those things? It’s textbook.
I found the multiple points of view in this novel to be both a positive and a negative. On one end, it was fantastic in that it really helps to illustrate all of the different sides of the characters and how they are perceived by others which is an essential part of the narrative. On the other hand, there were a ridiculous amount of characters that the story shifted between constantly, sometimes even mid-chapter. This made it extremely difficult to follow along and settle into the book in the early chapters and I can see it putting many readers off.
The predictability and large number of confusing narrators made it difficult to rate this book. I enjoyed the characterizations, the conversation about misogyny, and the general atmosphere of the book, but were those things enough to make up for the lack of any real thrills? I think this will be the question that many readers will be asking themselves about this book. Even though this wasn’t a perfect read for me I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another book by Paula Hawkins, she has a writing style that is engaging and some smart ideas. This author definitely has some potential to become a favorite.