It’s been more than a year since it came out and yet “The Girl on the Train” seems unlikely to be dislodged from its place on the best-seller lists any time soon. Indeed with good reason, Paula Hawkins’ debut novel is a gripping work with malice, betrayal and drama, distributed along a shaky timeline.
The book is narrated by three protagonists, each with different degrees of importance. Rachel is the main one and is frustratingly unreliable. Through most of the book, she is drunk, and thus her memories are blurry and doubtful. She herself doesn’t trust them! Rachel is your quintessential loser, her dependence on alcohol has cost her her job (in London) and she has alienated herself from most of her friends and family. For want of anything to do, and unable to be truly productive, she still sticks to her old commuting schedule to London. It gives her some semblance of normalcy, although she spends each train ride drinking several canned gin and tonics.
She lives in a small flat share, her flatmate isn’t too happy with her and Rachel’s life can be summed up as pathetic. She used to be married to Tom, who had an affair and then left her for the mistress. The mistress here is the blonde Anna, the second narrator. She was a sexy mistress but much to Tom’s disappointment, has turned into a rather firm wife, especially after giving birth to their daughter. Rachel has been unable to accept any of this, and is unable to move on. She is still obsessed with Tom and his life, and unfortunately lives in a sort of fantasy. Every day on her ‘commute’ she sees the house where she lived with Tom, which was right by the railroad. A few houses down, she sees a new couple that has moved in, and they are the impetus for Rachel to create her fantasy world. She has no idea who they are or what they do, so she invents names for them and imagines their personalities and lives, making them live out the life that she believes she lost. The girl, named as Jess by her, is a petite, stylish young woman and Jason (what she names the husband) is a hulky yet handsome man. Together they make the picture of the perfect couple and Rachel loves seeing their happiness. Her fantasy, however, is disrupted the day she sees Jess kissing another man.
Rachel’s Jess is actually Megan, our third narrator. Megan and her life in reality, are far from Rachel’s idea of them. She is unhappy in her marriage, and feels like a caged bird. She despises the suburban middle class lifestyle and misses the excitement of her old life in London where she worked at an art gallery. She lost her bearings when she lost the job, and settled for marriage, but she is bored and restless.
The first part of the book essentially outlines the characters for the reader. The timelines and narrators do not follow a linear trajectory and thus even this initial stage is tinged with excitement. The book really gains momentum however, when Megan disappears.
Her disappearance makes headlines, and Rachel somehow feels that she can help. She volunteers her observations about ‘Jess’ to the police, but who will give any credit to ‘facts’ given by an unstable alcoholic? This is what pushes Rachel into action. Her constant rejection by people makes her determined to recover her clouded memories and she jumps headfirst into the search for Megan’s killer. At this juncture, the reader has no clue what reality might be, and indeed all the men in the story are painted as suspects. This is also what brings Rachel and Anna together. Despite the fact that each loathes the other, they do share something in common. Megan used to babysit Tom and Anna’s daughter, thus Rachel and Anna might have clues that could lead to Megan’s killer.
‘The Girl on the Train’ starts out as a tear-jerker with the reader feeling pity for Rachel. However, as it unfolds, the story takes on a Hitchcock-esque turn replete with back-stabbing, love, betrayal and lying. Hawkins keeps the lies floating through the book in a manner that the reader doesn’t really know what to believe, and the lies told by her characters get muddled up and confused, shaking their faith too. No one knows who to believe and what is true, and the fear and danger keep intensifying.
What we loved most about this book is the non-linear timeline. The book jumps between the past, present and future for each character, and the ever-changing scenarios and varying points of view given by the three narrators create a rather dynamic timeline full of suspense. While the zigzag timeline is a constant feature in the book, it does feel a little slow in the beginning and feels like it suddenly speeds up in the second half. It could have been a little more balanced perhaps, but to the story’s credit, it doesn’t end up being a buzz kill.
It is only at the end of the book that the reader becomes aware of certain crucial elements that were never addressed. Certain characters never made an appearance and some ‘facts’ were never explained. A rather clever move, since it simply adds on to the mounting drama in the story.
In terms of literary finesse, it can be safely said that book doesn’t quite have that flair. It has been written in a simple manner, with not much style however, the women in the book are thinking beings, a refreshing change from the way women are often portrayed in novels. The book is unputdownable and makes for an exciting read. If you’re facing a lazy afternoon this weekend, we suggest you get your hands on a copy, brew a cup of your favourite tea – we had Billimalai Virgin Green – And curl up in your favourite reading nook with it!
Author: Medha Kulkarni
Medha Kulkarni is a writer and illustrator based out of Germany. You can see more of her work here.