ONE of this summer’s most talked about thrillers, The Girl on the Train makes a conquest of all the clichés it aspires to: it is unputdownable, a gripping read and a compulsive page-turner. Since it’s also quite satisfying, it shouldn’t — and it doesn’t — matter that it isn’t anything more. With its very title echoing the success of past bestsellers (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, etc) and plot points that include a missing wife, a suspicious husband, and an extramarital affair or two, one needs some reassurance that this isn’t simply a rehash of Gone Girl. It isn’t — this is much simpler fare than Gillian Flynn’s canny examination of the machinations of marriage and a far cry from her polished, witty prose.
During her daily work commute on the 8.04 train, Rachel looks forward to a glimpse of the couple that lives in 15, Blenheim Road, into whose lives she gets a peek when the train stops at a signal. Jess and Jason, as she calls them, are often out on their terrace or back garden which gives Rachel plenty of opportunity to indulge her inner voyeur. A few doors down is number 23, the house in which Rachel once lived with her husband, Tom, and where he now lives with his second wife, Anna, and their child. While Rachel loves peeping into Jess and Jason’s home, the sight of number 23 is wrenchingly painful to her. Paula Hawkins clearly wants us to understand that the completely unnatural interest and regard that Rachel feels for this couple stems from her inability to get over her divorce with Tom. It doesn’t help that Rachel is sliding into alcoholism and hungering for intimacy while spurning what she has in the way of real friendship.
Then one day, while looking out from her train window, like Mrs McGillicuddy in Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington, Rachel sees something more than she bargained for. The next day she reads about Megan’s — Jess’s actual name — disappearance. Rachel herself has woken up bruised and confused in her home, with no memory of what happened the night before, except that she was drunk and roaming somewhere around her ex’s house. Does Rachel know more than she thinks she does? Are her bruises related to Megan’s disappearance? And what should she do about what she saw from the train?
Rachel thrusts herself into the middle of the police investigations and approaches those she feels could help her remember what happened that fateful night. The first-person narrative toggles between Rachel, Megan and Anna, while also scissoring back and forth in time. This serves the very useful purpose of mystifying the reader and cutting him/her off at key junctures in the parallel narratives of the three women to obfuscate what would otherwise be quite clear.
While one doesn’t expect the writer to show us her hand, Paula Hawkins is less than fair, using pronouns that misinform and introducing superfluous passages whose very purpose is to deceive us. This is all in addition to Rachel’s exasperating prevarications. As the prime narrator, Rachel fails on several levels: her memory is unreliable, her imagination overactive and she has a tendency to fabricate. She completely reverses her opinions from one chapter to the next and makes such poor judgement calls that the reader can hardly trust her narrative. Since she isn’t at all capable of minding her own business, she approaches Scott (the ‘Jason’ of her imaginings), the missing woman’s husband, and feeds him all sorts of misinformation. This, combined with her drunken blackouts, make her not only a poor narrator but a very unlikeable heroine. To women, she is malicious and hostile; with men, ingratiating and spineless. Hawkins sets out to make us intensely uncomfortable and succeeds. Less successful is her attempt to create a sense of cognitive dissonance by making us question what Rachel tells us; as readers we merely feel that we are on shaky ground and grow increasingly weary with Rachel.
As the mystery unspools, so do the marriages of the seemingly loved up couples in the novel. In fact, the rapidity with which this happens in one instance is one of the prime weaknesses of this novel. What Hawkins seems to be asking is this: What does it really mean to know someone’s life? Can we trust even that which we have seen with our own eyes? The terrace and back garden on which Rachel glimpses Megan and Scott (Jess and Jason) are places both intimate and public.
Like the newsfeed from our Facebook friends, the information Rachel snatches up is in a burst of images that hide much more than they reveal while always preserving a façade of familiarity. What she gleans from them is both true in the most insignificant sense and fatally skewed; they are tableaux without context, or worse, with context supplied from her own imagination.
As Rachel tries to unravel the mystery of Megan’s disappearance by probing into Megan and Scott’s marriage, she is confronted with the possibility that she has judged her own life and marriage incorrectly. Hawkins’ writing conjures up vivid images with few words so it’s unsurprising that The Girl on the Train already has a movie in the works. But it is these very images that she cautions us not to trust, warning us that their immediate impression conflicts with the actual truth.
The Girl on the Train
By Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, US