WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
When Paula Hawkins wrote her first thriller, it was out of desperation. Her previous four novels – commercial stories published under the pen name Amy Silver – had flopped, leaving her in financial difficulties that made writing a bestseller the only way to make ends meet. She hit the jackpot upon publication with The Girl on the Train in 2015, when sales for her book topped the bestseller charts for twenty weeks and total sales for the first year climbed up to eight million. It’s now set to be released in the cinemas, starring Emily Blunt.
Image: Paula Hawkins
This dark psychological thriller has been likened to Gone Girl, and has been endorsed by the king of nightmares himself, Stephen King. Written in the first person and yet covering three sides to the story by endless persona-hopping, the novel is confusing at the start, especially due to switches in the timeline. Also, the information given about the main characters is not forthcoming in those first chapters. However, The Girl on the Train’s protagonist will grow on you as her life history is slowly unraveled throughout the novel. Hawkins manages to keep us intrigued, and toys with our minds so as to make us reluctant to take any of the facts being imparted as true. The style, and even the ending, reminded me of the writing by the duo Nicci French.
The story is primarily about Rachel, a divorced drunk who makes the daily commute to London. She enjoys looking out the window of the train, and never misses a chance to look into the yard and life of a couple that live down the road from her ex-husband Tom Watson. Unlike Tom’s house, which reminds her of what she’s lost and that he’s now made a new family with Anna, Megan and Scott Hipwell’s house gives her imagination free reign, as she sets about inventing a life for these strangers who she views as a perfect couple. As she finds out, perfection is an illusion, and one day she finds herself looking at a tableau she doesn’t want to believe. Megan then goes missing and Rachel feels propelled into helping with the case.
Image: The actress Emily Blunt in a scene of film: The Girl on the Train
Rachel is unreliable in her tale, often suffering from blank spaces where her memories should be. She is also susceptible to Tom’s explanations without ever doubting the man she’s still in love with. Anna’s narrative, on the other hand, whilst being prejudiced against Rachel for the latter’s inability to let go of Tom, is probably the most factual side of things that the reader will get. In fact, it’s through Anna’s eyes that we eventually find out what must have happened to Megan. Megan’s own first person view declines from giving the full story because, as she doesn’t want Scott to know what’s going on, she must therefore keep some secrets from the reader as well. This reasoning helps keep the identity of Megan’s assaulter hidden in plain view till the right time comes to reveal him.
What struck me most about this novel is the realism spread throughout the tale. The main character is an alcoholic, and all the main characters have different sides to them, some of which they are unwilling to share. The author plays on these different facets to make the reader think and feel what the rest of the characters feel about each other. Our view of Tom is one given by a love-struck and disturbed ex and a doting wife, while Scott is unfairly presented through the eyes of the wife’s therapist and later Rachel, with whom he has every right to be angry.
Even at the end, the story does not resolve in a quiet arrest and a fresh start for all. Rather, as stickily as in real life, the villain will get retribution from an unlikely source, and all the remaining characters face their future without the disillusions of their recent past. Hawkins rejects a happily-ever-after whilst still pitying her characters enough to help them clean up their act before the end. In so doing, she manages to sprinkle some woman-power over all of her female leads, who have lived this story to the point where they will never fully get away from the nightmare they have lived.
The book for this review was kindly provided by Agenda Bookshop.