Book Review: The Girl on the Train

(null)I have to preface this review to note that I have no idea why we are calling a 30+ divorcee sadmuting on a train a ‘girl’. We just do. It’s a thing, just roll with it…like a train!

The Girl on the Train in Paula Hawkins novel is Rachel, a 30+ divorcee (I am, I admit, having trouble rolling with that one), with a London commuter’s interminable and immutable schedule. She takes the 8.04 to London and rides the 5.56 home, and on the way she peers into the windows of No. 15.

That is where Jason and Jess live. He’s a doctor, she’s an artist. She drinks coffee in the garden, he has a great laugh. They’re in love.

Except how does a woman (I’ve given up with the girl) on a train know all that about a house whose windows she peers into? Well, maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she’s really just trying to avoid looking into No. 23, the house where Rachel used to live and her ex-husband now resides with his new wife and newer child.

You can’t really trust Rachel, you see. Not when she’s been drinking. Even Rachel can’t trust Rachel when she’s been drinking – so when the woman in No. 15 goes missing…

The Girl on the Train came highly recommended. That isn’t really an advantage for it. I am contrary by nature – I continue to sullenly refuse to watch Gotham, just because everyone tells me it’s great – and after so many assurances that it is a brilliant new book I come to the title page with high expectations.

It didn’t entirely live up to them. Hawkins is a good writer – often an excellent writer – but she does herself few favours by kicking her book off with a series of commuting vignettes from Rachel’s point of view. Commutes are, by their nature, mind-numbing. Even with a quick prologue promising ‘murder and mayhem anytime now, really’ it’s a bit of a slog to get immersed in the book.

At this point I should admit that it took me – an inveterate ignorer of chapter titles getting on a plane – a while to realise the narrative was non-linear, with overlapping but non-concurrent POVs. That is my own fault, none of Hawkins, but anyone picking up the book on my recommendation? Check the dates. It makes it all a lot easier to follow.

Once you put all the pieces together, though, Hawkins’ has an immersive, compelling style that successfully nests the reader into Rachel’s POV, despite the fact she’s not a particularly likeable person. The prose has a jittery, compressed feeling that captures the claustrophobic, hungry state of addiction. Rachel staggers along the knife edge of her train schedule dictated day, caught between the fear that she will drink and the fear she won’t.

The other viewpoint characters are well-written and convincing, but never quite as perfectly, imperfectly, real as Rachel.

Where the novel doesn’t quite live up to its top billing, for me at least, is the plot. Although an interesting conceit to work with – similar to Hitchcock’s Rear Window but with an even more compressed frame of reference – but there are times the structure just isn’t there to support the style.

With the killer and motive fairly obvious early on in the narrative – despite the scattering of a few red herrings – the weight of the story rests on Rachel’s investigation. That is a problem, since she is a lack-lustre detective and the entire reveal rests mainly on a convenient memory dropping out of her blackout and an unexplainable lapse into stupidity by the villain of the piece.

It also appeared that there was no-one else living in the houses between 15 and 23, since we never really see any neighbours.

My other problem with The Girl on the Train was the dawning suspicion that it was another ‘every woman is the victim of the patriarchy, every man with more than five lines is abusive in some way or another and eventually we’re all going to Thelma and Louise it’ book.

Seriously! If the blokes weren’t murdering women they were abusing them, if they weren’t beating them up they were emotionally manipulative. I mean, there are plenty of ways to write a feminist detective novel. I just don’t think creating an encapsulated Valley of the Wifebeaters setting is how to do it. Strawmen are easy targets, not convincing ones.

I left The Girl on the Train satisfied with what I’d read – the writing is undeniably gracile and appealing – but no burning desire to tag Hawkins’ so I could follow her career like it was a wayward puffin.

The Girl on the Train is available to purchase at the Hive.

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