There are some books that you feel you have to read, just because everyone is talking about them, and you want to know whether they live up to the hype. That’s the way I felt about The Girl on the Train. I have been reading about this book on Twitter for months; the publicity machine at Transworld Books has done a seriously good job at getting word out that this is the book of the moment.
It tells the story of Rachel, the girl on the train of the title. Every day, on her commute into London, she looks at a little row of houses, and creates a story for the couple she sees in one of them. She doesn’t know this couple, but she calls them Jess and Jason, and she imagines their perfect life together. Not so far outside the realms of normal, you think, until you factor in that Rachel’s obsession with this particular row of houses grows out of the fact that she used to live a few doors down, with the husband who left her for another woman (with whom he now lives in the same house). Rachel is also nursing a drinking problem, and she’s not actually commuting – she’s going to London every day to convince her landlady that she still has a job, when in fact, she has been fired. When ‘Jess’, actually called Megan, goes missing, Rachel inserts herself into the investigation, believing that something she saw from the train is a key piece of evidence.
The Girl on the Train has long been billed as the new Gone Girl, but I’ll say right now that I can’t comment on the comparison, as I’m yet to read Gillian Flynn’s novel. What I do know is that The Girl on the Train plays out as a very entertaining thriller. The narrative structure is compelling; Hawkins gives voice to the three central women of the story – Rachel, the girl on the train; Megan, the girl she sees from the train; and Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex, Tom. It’s great to read a story from three vey distinctive female points of view, especially ones as flawed as these three women. Rachel, our main protagonist, is the most flawed of all; drinking on the train on the way home (acceptable on a Friday night, but drawing glances on a Monday night), prone to blackouts when she drinks too much, and unable to accept that she lost her husband and her chance at happiness.
Hearing the term ‘unreliable narrator’ can, to my mind, set off the spoiler warning in my head, and most of the time, I’d rather it wasn’t employed at all. But here, we’re let in on the reason Rachel is unreliable early on – she can’t remember what happens. She blacks out at inopportune moments, and so the things that she should be able to tell the police are completely missing from her memory. What she does tell them seem like the ramblings of a mentally ill person; she saw something from the train that she thinks might be suspicious, and this makes it easy for them to dismiss her.
I can’t say that I didn’t figure out the way things were going fairly quickly, because I did. By the time Megan had gone missing, I had a pretty good idea how things were going to turn out. But that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story, and I think the character of Rachel is really well written. While it’s not always easy to like her, it’s hard not to want to hear her story.
The Girl on the Train
First published: January 2015