A spa treatment room. Photo: Merlin resort, Thailand/Flickr
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Tracey Thorn: I know just how uptight I am when I find myself at a spa and unable to chill

I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction.

"Oooh, you’re terrible at relaxing,” says the massage therapist as she kneads my legs, vainly trying to release some of the tension that holds my body upright. Thanks, I think. That’s relaxing. I’m on a spa weekend, health and fitness being the mission, albeit with a stash of emergency biscuits in my bag; but a stressful week at home – domestic worries, parenting worries – has delivered me here in an uptight state of mind, and immediately I’m confronted by my lifelong inability to let go.

I’ve written before about anxiety and how humiliating it can be. Finding it hard to chill in a spa is the least of my worries much of the time, and pales into insignificance next to some of my other panicky experiences. Still, relaxation is a goal to which we must all aspire in the modern world, and it’s an area in which I often fail. Telling someone like me to relax is as helpful as telling a depressed person to cheer up, but you’d be surprised how often the command is issued, and how shaming it is not to be able to obey.

What separates laid-back people from those like me who are permanently on edge is our response to stimulation. I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction. They seem to have a thicker skin than I do, impervious to the minor fluctuations of everyday life. It takes something really uptempo to get their hearts racing, so they seek out roller-coasters and fast cars and cocaine – properly adventurous or risky experiences – needing that buzz to feel alive.

In contrast, I creep through life on tiptoe, trying not to set off alarms, avoiding stimulants that would tip me over the edge, the inside of my brain and body operating at roller-coaster speed much of the time, even when nothing is happening. My heart races at the slightest provocation, needing no recreational drugs to pump it up, and I’m more likely to get addicted to beta blockers than to coke. I blush at the drop of a hat, sometimes just from thinking, and can flush from chest to forehead as I sit quietly at my laptop.

“Hmm, writing another of your columns?” Ben remarks drily when he sees me like this, and quite often I am. It’s as much excitement as I can take.

Ironically, of course, I have a relaxing voice. People tell me my records soothe them, which isn’t always what I want to hear. The disconnect between what I put into my vocal performances and what comes out the other end can be frustrating, leading me to wonder where it is that all this angst and intensity goes. Some secret part of me attempts to conceal it, converting torment into its opposite, but it’s an unconscious act over which I have no control, and I often wish my vocals were a truer representation of what’s going on in my head.

I think all this while I’m lying on a mat in the relaxation class, listening to Liz Fraser’s “Teardrop”, another vocal that strikes me as trouble masquerading as ease, born from deep and complicated thoughts, yet finding its home on a chill-out album. Still, I do find that Liz’s voice works some of its magic on me, slowing me down as I make my way to an appointment for a body scrub. There I’m greeted by a Hungarian lady who talks at breakneck pace throughout the treatment, a frantic laugh punctuating every sentence. “You’re terrible at relaxing,” I feel like saying to her. But she’s new here, doesn’t quite know how the shower works, or what height to set the massage table at, and is trying to put me, or perhaps herself, at ease.

You’d think her awkwardness would unsettle me but in fact it’s reassuring. To a tense person, it can be threatening to be in the company of the nonchalant. Their slower pace acts as an irritant, and their savoir faire feels like a reprimand, showing you up for the nervous wreck you are. But me and the therapist, we’re similar types, I reckon. So she rattles on about her family, and dry skin, and the awfulness of paper pants, and she nervously giggles, and I nervously giggle back, and finally I start to feel quite relaxed. Or as much as I ever do. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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