Who doesn’t gaze absently out the window on their morning train commute, clocking the familiar sights that pass you by? From time to time something will give you cause to pay attention – a building suddenly under construction or a tree that has been knocked over during a storm, but for Rachel Watson, it’s the change in habits of the couple she watches from her carriage that pricks up her ears and sets in motion a journey that takes a wide and dangerous diversion from A to B.
Comparisons to the phenomenon that was Gone Girl won’t be far away from this tense thriller, particularly when the three points of view are taken into perspective. First there is lonely, washed-up Rachel. Her train from the suburbs into London always stops at a junction that overlooks the back of a set of houses on a smart street; a street she used to live on in wedded bliss with her now estranged husband. She has taken to fantasising about the lives of a couple she sees a few doors down – names them Jason and Jess and assigns personalities, jobs, the perfect life to the pair.
Jess is really Megan, and her actual life is far more complicated and far less ideal than Rachel imagines. Her husband Scott is ever so slightly possessive and she has taken to attending regular counselling sessions with a handsome therapist with his own tragic back story to deal with recurring self-destructive issues.
Anna is the current wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom, determined to ensure that her life turns out exactly how she has orchestrated it. A small gurgling baby to keep her occupied, she is still disturbed by the ongoing lingering presence of Rachel, whose near nightly drunken phone calls to Tom threaten to derail Anna’s carefully constructed life.
Rachel is the driving force behind the story, and despite her descent into alcoholism, which has cost her her job and her dignity, nuggets of the woman she was before her marriage broke down emerge. When Megan goes missing Rachel is sure she has some vital information to give to the police but it’s buried hazily under the fog of a blackout she suffered following a heavy drinking session on the train with a fellow passenger. A self-proclaimed unreliable witness, her statement contains half-truths and omissions in order to protect herself and what’s left of her self-respect and the holes in her story are too wide to be taken seriously with officers who increasingly believe that they may be facing a homicide investigation.
The Girl on the Train is built on the lies people tell themselves and the false facade they present to the world. Jess and Jason, the perfect couple, are in reality Megan and Scott, struggling with problems both new and from way, way back. Once Megan disappears Scott expresses to Rachel, who has become his confidante, how little he knew about his young wife. The revelation that “She wasn’t who I thought she was” can apply to each and every character in this twisted tail of deceit, deception and redemption.
Rachel is an interesting and likeable character despite her extensive list of flaws. Her struggle with alcohol is portrayed extremely well; the justification for a drink to calm her nerves, that it’s perfectly socially acceptable to crack open four or five cans of gin and tonic on the train on a Friday evening. Hiding her bottles of wine from her housemate has become du jour and her evasive behaviour has started to isolate her further, send her deeper into the point of no return as she still clings to the memories of her life with Tom, remembering exclusively behind the comfort of rose-tinted glasses. She decides to investigate the disappearance of Megan herself, following the embarrassing dismissal of her evidence by the detectives and their obvious derision of her pathetic state. The more interest she takes the clearer she needs her head to be, and her vulnerability begins to shed, as well as the ease with which she can be manipulated.
A native of Zimbabwe, author Paula Hawkins moved to London in 1989 and has lived there ever since. Working as a journalist for fifteen years before turning to fiction writing full time, The Girl on the Train has been a runaway success and has been, unsurprisingly, opted for film. Riding the wave of Gone Girl it may be, but this debut novel has its own distinct merits. It’s only the reader who knows the absolute truth about the dark secrets and inner workings of each narrators minds, and each are very well drawn, with subtlety and nuance. The character study is intriguing – reading the opinion of one narrator of another, seeing how a stranger can affect your life in a profound way, observing how one woman’s hero can be another’s villain, and even though the reader has an insight that none of the characters could possibly have, you’re still on tenterhooks, left guessing until the explosive climax.
Unusually for a novel set in London, the city takes an absolute back seat in the telling. The commute could be happening in Dublin, or Berlin, or Seoul, the passenger could be your sister or aunt or the friend of a friend. Rachel’s desperate attempts to remember pivotal moments she is almost sure she witnessed the night Megan went missing, thoughts tantalisingly cloaked behind a thin veil of alcohol-fuelled limbo is heart-breaking, and offers a real insight into the struggle of an alcoholic. Megan’s erratic behaviour is explained in part by the revelation of a torment she has kept secret for years, but the Chinese whispers that distort the true story, the story revealed to the reader, turns sympathy for her by the general public, aware of her disappearance, into disgust. Anna portrays herself as a second Mrs De Winter type, dreaming of Manderley again and suffering the spectre of the first Mrs Watson’s unhealthy relationship with her husband. But we learn that she’s not the weak, innocent wall flower she’d like you to believe she is, tempered with a cold, hard streak of her own.
The Girl on the Train will have you questioning the motives behind every twist, and will keep you turning the pages until deep into the night. An engaging, thrilling read, you’ll never look at your fellow commuters the same way again.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 18th March 2015