It isn’t often that I am gripped immediately by a book. My reading is dictated very much by my mood and I usually read with some detachment for the first few pages. All the while, I am cautiously weighing up whether to keep on reading or go back to the drawing board. As an academic, I often have to wade through books I am not enjoying because I either have to a.) write about them or b.) teach them. I don’t even try to push past the boredom barrier when I’m reading for pleasure; life really is too short.
Unusually for me, I made the decision to stick with The Girl on the Train almost instantly. The transition from ‘auditioning’ the novel to actually reading it took about five lines rather than five (or more) pages. Additionally, I am a slow and less-than-prolific reader. It is rare that I will read more than one book a week, hence I average around 50 books a year. However, I devoured this, the first thriller by Paula Hawkins, in a matter of hours over one weekend. I was feverishly consumed by it.
So what is so good about The Girl on the Train? Well, firstly, it has a very intriguing plot. The narrator, Rachel, is an alcoholic whose condition recently destroyed her marriage. She is the ‘girl’ of the title, though in actual fact she is a thirty-something. The ‘train’ part comes in because Rachel continues to make her daily commute even though her alcoholism cost her a job as well as a husband. She is desperately trying to keep up appearances in front of the friend she is currently lodging with. Rachel’s train journey takes her past the home she once shared with her husband, Tom. He still lives in this same house, along with his new wife Anna and their baby daughter. It is with two of the street’s other residents that Rachel becomes fixated, however – a young couple she names ‘Jess’ and ‘Jason’. Rachel weaves stories around this pair, imagining them as the perfect couple. This illusion is shattered when Rachel glimpses ‘Jess’ with another man. Shortly afterwards, she discovers that ‘Jess’, who is really called Megan, has gone missing and involves herself in the investigation, with potentially fatal results.
The Girl on the Train is a domestic noir novel in a similar vein to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Both novels are situated in apparently ordinary suburban settings that are teeming with secrets and deceit, and are constantly threatening to erupt into violence. For me, what makes these stories so compelling is their concern with our capacity for trust and judgement. Do we really know the people we’re living with? Do they really know us? Can we trust them? How do we know? These psychological thrillers thus invite readers to play active roles; to become involved in the process of detection. We are not just passengers on this particular train. There are three unreliable female narrators: Rachel, Megan and Anna. Which one can we trust, if any? The power of domestic noir is that these questions do not remain confined within the novel itself; they are questions anyone could ask of the people around them.
The Girl on the Train is already one of the bestselling novels of 2015 and – another rarity for me – I can see why. It is gripping and readable, with lucid, snappy prose from the outset. The themes and content aren’t exactly groundbreaking but the whole thing is very well executed. Hawkins handles the unreliable narrator device with particular aplomb.
I did think that the ending undid a lot of the moral ambiguity the rest of the novel had done such a great job of creating. After a gnarly, psychological thriller, the ending appeared a little too simple and clear-cut. I must stress, though, that it was by no means one of Those Endings. You know. The ones that make you wonder why you ever bothered in the first place and make you wish you could demand both your money and a good seven hours of your life back. The Girl on the Train reaches a satisfying conclusion; I just wish it had retained a little more of its moral greyness.
Overall, though, this is literary entertainment at its best.