Of late, in bestselling suspense fiction, it’s been Girls, Girls, Girls!
I resisted that one. I figured it would never live up to the hype (you can tell me if I was wrong).
And then came Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (2014). It may have been its fantastic cover, which conveys a sense of motion sickness and blurred perception, or the mention of a train (I have a great fondness for murder mysteries and train travel; see TRAIN TRAVEL AS LITERARY DESTINATION AND JOURNEY), that caught my attention.
But I think that I picked up a copy of The Girl on the Train principally because I knew that I would be in London (UK) between September 11th and September 28th, and knew that Hawkins’ novel was set in the outskirts of that great city.
Short of reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express while traveling on the actual Orient Express, I can’t imagine a more fun reading experience than poring over The Girl on the Train while traveling around London on the Tube.
Except that I finished it on the plane ride to England!
That tells you what a page-turner it is.
The Girl on the Train is a story narrated in the first person by three different women: Rachel, Megan and Anna, though the dominant voice is that of Rachel, “the girl on the train” of the title.
During the habitual weekday commute from Ashbury to Euston on the 8:04 and 17:56 trains which takes her past the backyards of
homes in the area where she once lived with her ex-husband Tom, Rachel has observed one couple in particular, from her window seat, that she describes early on as “a perfect, golden couple”. Why Rachel has become infatuated with them is soon made clear:
“I don’t know their names either, so I had to name them myself. Jason, because he’s handsome in a British film star kind of way, not a Depp or a Pitt, but a Firth, or a Jason Isaacs. And Jess just goes with Jason, and it goes with her. It fits her, pretty and carefree as she is. They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me, five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.”
Because of Rachel’s plain speaking, we immediately sense that she’s not well. We begin to see that her divorce from Tom causes her tremendous pain, and that she’s broken in some way. And we discover that she drinks―alone in the room she rents from her friend Cathy, out in the park, aboard the train, and in the street―cans of gin and tonic (usually stashed in her bag) and bottles of wine, mostly, until she blacks out or vomits (or both), and we begin to see her not as the girl on the train, but as a train wreck about to happen.
Until one day, in the midst of her freefall, Rachel witnesses something upsetting at Jess and Jason’s from her vantage point on the train, and learns soon after that Jess and Jason are in fact named Megan and Scott Hipwell, and that Megan has been reported missing.
What Rachel has observed seems fairly innocuous to the reader, but Rachel’s instincts tell her otherwise, and she decides to go to the police with her information.
As the police become involved in Megan’s disappearance, we learn that Rachel’s ex, Tom, and his new wife Anna and their baby, Evie, who live just a few doors down the street, have a connection with Scott and Megan.
And just like that (snap!), a novel that had me anticipating broad railway landscapes and an intrigue that would hop from one town to another reveals itself as a tightly contained and claustrophobic mystery with a small cast of characters.
The oppressiveness of the story is heightened by Hawkins’ use of three narrators on different timelines (for instance, Megan’s first narrations are dated a year before Rachel’s account begins, while Anna only begins speaking one third of the way into the novel).
Hawkins’ does a brilliant job juggling the points of view of these three women to tease out clues and other elements of the story.
Rachel is an especially memorable character. Should the police believe her? Should we? What has she actually seen? What is true memory and what is just the fabrication of alcoholic hallucination? Should we care about her?
Where Paula Hawkins is less successful, however, is in creating distinct voices for the three women. Compare these three excerpts:
“Wednesday, 10 July 2013
[…] I can’t see Jason and Jess this morning, and my sense of disappointment is acute. Silly, I know. I scrutinize the house, but there’s nothing to see. The curtains are open downstairs but the French doors are closed, sunlight reflecting on glass. The sash window upstairs is closed, too. Jason may be away working. He’s a doctor, I think, probably on call, a bag packed on top of the wardrobe; there’s an earthquake in Iran or a tsunami in Asia and he drops everything, he grabs his bag and he’s at Heathrow within a matter of hours, ready to save lives.”
“Tuesday, 25 September 2012
I walk out of the house, turn right and then left on Kingly Road. Past the pub― the Rose. We used to go there all the time; I can’t remember why we stopped. I never liked it all that much, too many couples just the right side of forty drinking too much and casting around for something better, wondering if they’d have the courage. Perhaps that’s why we stopped going, because I didn’t like it. Past the pub, past the shops. I don’t want to go far, just a little circuit, to stretch my legs.”
We are happy. We had lunch and lay out on the lawn, and then when it got too hot we came inside and ate ice cream while Tom watched the Grand Prix. Evie and I made playdough, and she ate quite a bit of that, too. I think about what’s going on down the road and I think about how lucky I am, how I got everything that I wanted. When I look at Tom, I thank God that he found me, too, that I was able to rescue him from that woman. She’d have driven him mad in the end, I really think that― she’d have ground him down, she’s have made him into something he’s not.”
There’s a sameness to these voices, a similarity of rhythm and tone, a flatness that I found a bit wearying. There were a few times when my attention drifted and I lost track of which character was speaking and had to backtrack and check.
Or maybe she’s been much cleverer than I give her credit for, and Rachel, Megan and Anna’s similarities are meant to underscore the lack of variety in their three lives; the empty monotony of a suburban existence centered on a male partner and dreams of domestic security.
As she stumbles through the novel, ruined and unstable, it’s Rachel who makes the connections that drive a story with strong cinematic echoes.
In her alcoholic freefall, I was reminded of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. In the paranoid and narrowing intrigue that threatens her life, I saw the shadow of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. And in the shifting sands created by her unreliability as a witness, I was reminded of the terrifying fate of Véra Clouzot’s character in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 noir thriller, Les Diaboliques (available at the Library!).
Not bad for a girl on a train!