Book name: Into the Water
Author: Paula Hawkins
The exhilaration of the first dive is something that every swimmer worth her salt will vouch for. The rush of air and the heady surge of adrenaline as your body hits the water, the sudden blanketing of all noise, and then, as one surfaces, the feeling of being vitally alive. Paula Hawkins’s second novel after her bestselling debut, The Girl on the Train, however, never recovers from the dive. It pitches headlong into dark, murky waters in the town of Beckford in Northumberland, and then, for the rest of the novel, flounders as it tries to break to the surface, much like her protagonist, Jules Abbott.
A visit from the police informing her about her estranged sister Nel’s accidental death brings Jules back to the one place she has always wanted to escape: their home in Beckford, close to the Drowning Pool, the site of many childhood humiliations. Jules hates the water, but she knows Nel, an accomplished swimmer, could not possibly have drowned. What could have killed her then? Was it her probing into the many mysterious drownings at the pool over the years, including the recent one of her daughter’s best friend?
After all, Nel had written in her manuscript, “Beckford is not a suicide spot. Beckford is a place to get rid of troublesome women.” Living up to the glory of a first novel that has sold over 18 million copies is a tough ask. Hawkins somersaults off to an atmospheric start, before she introduces over 10 narrative voices to carry forward the thread of the mystery. It’s an ambitious project and you can see how the author wants to tie it up with a commentary on how women who have dared to rebel have been bedevilled down the ages. But, after a point, the narrative begins to feel laboured, the structure cumbersome and the mystery, tepid. It’s a bit of a letdown, because Hawkins has a definite pulse for mapping the fallibilities of commonplace lives. Perhaps, it will find its voice in a movie.
Book name: Party Girls Die in Pearls
Author: Plum Sykes
It’s Gossip Girl-meets-Agatha Christie in this murder mystery set in the Oxford University of 1985. Plum Sykes, contributing editor at the American Vogue, plays it right up her alley and sets her return to fiction in nearly a decade among the rich and decadent set at Britain’s most prestigious arts university (incidentally, also her alma mater).
Ursula Flowerbutton fetches up at Christminster College campus from her modest Gloucestershire farmhouse in the Cotswold for a course in Modern History, and finds herself immediately drawn into a world of posh, private school-educated undergraduates with a penchant for parties, punting and the latest fashion. Before Ursula can find her feet, she’s swept into a whodunit when she discovers the body of India Brattenbury, the snootiest girl in the pack, in her don’s study. Can she solve the mystery and earn herself a reporter’s post in the prestigious college paper Cherwell? Assisted by her friend, Nancy Feingold, a feisty American Exchange student, Ursula is determined to follow the case to its sordid end, except, that the murderer seems to be just a step ahead of her.
Sykes’s first book in what is to be an Oxford Girl Mystery series is a cheat’s guide to easy detection, a light and escapist read very far from the intense crime fictions in the market. Instead of gritty realism and psychological twists, there’s a liberal sprinkling of fashion trends (pixie boots, body-con dresses and ra-ra skirts, anyone?) and a droll sense of humour in Syke’s portrayal of Oxford’s champagne set (Horatio Bentley, Cherwell’s gossip columnist, in particular, is a hoot). If you want to catch up on the ’80s lookbook (and why not, seeing that retro is never quite out of vogue), go right ahead and take the plunge.
Book name: Don’t Let Go
Author: Michel Bussi (Translated by Sam Taylor)
Publisher: Orion Books (Hachette)
The Bellions – Martial, Liane and their six-year-old daughter Sopha – are the picture-perfect prototype of a happy family that resorts in exotic island destinations want to show off in their tourist brochures. But then, on one such vacation in Reunion Island, Liane goes up to the hotel room to change, leaving Martial and Sopha lounging in the pool, and disappears. Just as the needle of suspicion hovers towards Martial, he goes on the run with Sopha.
If the premise of Michel Bussi’s latest sounds familiar, you’d do well to give up preconceived notions. Bussi is a consummate artist, the least of whose strengths is range. His dazzling debut novel in English, After the Crash (2015), was followed by the long-drawn and unexpected Black Water Lilies; now, the Frenchman tries his hand at a well-worn trope and brings it to a startling denouement. Don’t Let Go is a cracker of a thriller – terse, taut, and always moving at a frantic pace, but the chase is only half the fun.
Like in his previous novels, the setting is of essence in the world Bussi builds up — under his careful scrutiny, the cauldron that is Reunion comes alive as he teases out the racial tensions simmering beneath the surface. There are moments of unexpected and deep tenderness, a sort of reprieve from the breathless pace of the hunt. Perhaps, the most endearing members of Bussi’s varied cast are the investigating officers — Aja Purvi and her second-in-command, Christos Konstantinov — each trying to tame their demons and make the best of the deal life has served them and only half succeeding at it. At once familiar and ingenuous, Don’t Let Go is another hat tip to Bussi’s fine craftsmanship.
Book name: The Girl Before
Author: JP Delaney
Publisher: Quercus Books
Searching for a decent apartment in the city on a limited budget is the stuff of modern nightmares, but, what if you were given a chance to live in a hi-tech apartment — a coveted architect’s dream house — at a minimal rent, should you pass his stringent screening process?
Emma and Jane, the narrators of JP Delaney’s debut novel, are both recovering from trauma when the chance to live at One Folgate Street in the heart of London opens up for them. Its architect, the rich, handsome and quirky Edward Monkton, is an advocate of Marie Kondo-esque minimalist living and both girls have to get past his eccentric grilling, often bordering on intrusion, to live there.
The house itself is the sort that features in Architectural Digest – impersonal, clutter-free and technology-reliant. Photosensitive windows anticipate the change in weather, the internet is differently-abled within the premises, restricting Google and Safari and allowing only the impersonal ‘Housekeeper’ to set the terms of usage. Compliance is non-negotiable — there are sensors and cameras monitoring the tenant’s every shot at self-improvement. As the story jumps between ‘Then: Emma’ and ‘Now: Jane’, Delaney builds up a taut mirror-image narrative where the girls seem to follow a set pattern orchestrated by Monkton, that includes having an affair with him on the lines of Fifty Shades of Grey. Will Jane escape Emma’s fate?
There’s a cast of extraneous characters, who weigh in with their opinions about Emma and Jane, neither of whom are built up in great detail, despite sharing their every thought with the reader. Delaney follows the commercially viable model of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, throwing in an unreliable narrator to shake things up. For all their similarities, Emma and Jane are very different people and come to different (and difficult) ends. The denouement is the biggest letdown, particularly after the riveting turn of events leading up to it. But, Delaney certainly has an unerring eye for cinematic detail and pace, traits that won the book a contract to be turned into a film by Ron Howard before its publication.