Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train is the novel of the moment. It is often somewhat inevitably compared to Gillian Flynn’s ever-popular Gone Girl because of the similarity in genre as a psychological thriller, and because both books feature a compelling and increasingly sinister mystery set around a woman who has gone missing.
The book is in part so engaging because the plot is laid out through the progressive experiences and voices of three women whose lives have become tragically connected: Rachel, Megan, and Anna. The novel opens with Rachel, who seems at first to be a typical woman on her daily train commute to London for work. Howe er, she is carrying several cans of gin and tonic in her bag, ready for her weekend bender; she is unemployed and her daily commute is nothing more than a cover for her current lifestyle.
It is arguably the three contrasting narrators – Rachel, the spurned, alcoholic ex-wife whose memory lapses make her the true definition of an unreliable narrator; Anna, the sultry and smug new wife; and Megan, the unlucky outsider and subject of Rachel’s obsession as she travels everyday on the train into London past her previous marital home, that make this novel truly absorbing.
The contrast between these three female voices offers change of pace and perspective, although, it is Rachel, the first narrator, who surprises the reader by provoking unexpected sympathy through her wretchedness. She is an unlikely female lead: unattractive and overweight, struggling with her tragic addiction. Despite the sympathy felt by the reader, it may be said that none of the female narrators are particularly likeable. Fitzgerald’s phrase “at once within and without” comes to mind when reading much of the novel; the limitations of the narrative become its strength in that much of what is written is frustratingly only understood through the observation of the narrator, rather than active participation. This is both frustrating and rewarding; the reader makes shocking discoveries at the same time as the narrator, whilst theorising constantly from what the narrator has previously observed about the unanswered questions of the book.
The novel follows the daily life of these three women with relation to the disappearance around which the plot is centred. Whilst it could have been prone to becoming repetitive, the story itself contains many surprising twists and turns, with the frequent intervention of poignant, often heart-rending, memories from each of the narrators. The story remains engaging and emotive throughout, and the only criticism might be that the ending could be seen as a little convenient considering everything that has come before.
The Girl on the Train is a tragic tale at heart: an evocative and gripping story of dysfunction and the manner in which the human spirit is broken down by tragedies that could not have been predicted.
Image: Katie Neil/Paula Hawkins