From the beginning of Hawkins' novel, what we know about the Drowning Pool, a section of the river next to the brown stone bulk of Mill House in Bexford, are the tales from local fortuneteller Nickie Sage, about the women who were either forced into the water or went in willingly. Nickie is convinced that single mother and writer Nell Abbott went into the water fighting. Nel was playing with fire, obsessed with the river and its secrets. Nickie has made a career out of telling everyone in Bexford about “the witching lot,” the people who occasionally come to pay their respects to young girls like Libby and May and all the other “women of the water.” No one in Bexford likes to think about the water in the river
being infected with the blood and bile of unhappy, persecuted women.
In the aftermath of Nel’s death, her sister, Jules Abbot, returns to Bexford to sort out her “older sister’s mess” and take care of Nel’s
15-year-old daughter, Lena. Blindsided by the shock of losing Nel, Jules is physically and metaphorically dragged back into the water of her past, “to a place where she never wanted to be.” Lena scalds and glares
with resentment at her aunt’s interference. She tells Detective Inspector Sean Townsend and Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, the two officers assigned to the investigation, that there’s no way her mother could have committed suicide.
As Lena’s instincts begin to outweigh the shock, she refuses to believe Erin’s report: preliminary evidence suggests that Nel’s injuries were consistent with a fall from the cliff above the pool.
As the past begins to “shoot like sparrows,” startling and inescapable, Lena and Jules' fractured relationship transforms Hawkins’s multilayered
story into an intense portrayal of the fluid, quixotic, dark relationships that haunt the people of Bexford. Lena’s anger, her ranting and raving, acts as a catalyst, forcing Jules to recall Nel’s abuse, how the cry on her lips died the night she hit the black water while Nel screamed “fat cow Julia.” Jules can still hear the words, and she can still feel that night: the terror, fascination, and words circling in her head: “What would it be like, to watch your mother die.”
From the present to the past, chapters alternate between characters, each somehow connected to the apparent of suicide of Lena’s best friend, Katie Whittaker, who was
also thought to have suicided in the Drowning Pool a few months earlier. Katie’s teenage brother, Josh, laments her death of his older sister.
His mother, Louise, walks by the river, visiting Katie’s grave and recalling how Katie “got up in the middle of the night and went to the river and didn’t come back.” Louise is absolutely thrilled by news that Nel Abbott is dead; she blames her for the loss of her daughter. Katie and Lena’s high school teacher Mark Henderson
knew about bad blood between Nel and Louise. Since Nel’s death, a burden has been lifted from Mark,
though the river--once a source of pleasure for him--has become a place of horror.
Nel’s uncompleted book about the Drowning Pool might explains Lena’s aberrant behavior, and Jules attempts to navigate increasingly harrowing and angry episodes. Faced with Lena’s increased recalcitrance, Jules
turns amateur sleuth, determined to uncover the object of Nel’s passion, a desire somehow tied to the Townsend family: Helen, Sean’s wife, and also Patrick, Sean’s father, who hides a vicious, sadistic, possessive streak. Patrick is still hurting from all of the deaths in the river and the painful memories of his mother, who also died in the Pool.
Untangling a web of passion and treachery, the word “suicide” flutters like a moth in Jules’ thoughts.
She reads Nel’s notes, learning of an intimacy shared by the two women who went into the water, connected by time and place and by Lena, “the best friend of one, daughter of the other.” Lena was the last person to see her mother alive and the first to insist that Katie’s death and the mystery surrounding it was what Katie wanted. Erin unlocks Sean’s suffering
and finds herself digging deep into the history of all of the accidents and the suicides, the grotesque misogynistic drownings that conjure up a place of persecuted women, outsiders, and misfits fallen foul of patriarchal edicts.
While the plot isn’t as edgy as The Girl on the Train (comparisons are inevitable), the setting adds as much piquancy to the novel as the drama of Jules and Nel’s past sibling relationship plays out against the backdrop of the pale, icy Drowning Pool. From the black cliffs
and terrible thrill to the sudden temptation of oblivion, Hawkins writes a character study about broken friendships, broken romances, and broken people.
All has somehow been provoked by Nel’s demise, a woman who loved Mill House, the water, and the stories of the desperate women who flung themselves from the cliffs to the rocks below. Part of Jules’ journey
is to finally understand the depth of Nel’s anger at her, to glimpse into the life of a little girl lost and two very different sisters,
each in desperate need of salvation.