As the new film trailers land for the long awaited adaptation of this intense thriller, I have decided to share my views on the book that has gripped the nation ever since its release.
The debut novel by Paula Hawkins had rave reviews, film speculation and comparisons to the smash hit Gone Girl even before it hit the shelves.
Please, if you take one thing away from this review, let it be this- this novel is NOTHING like Gone Girl. It is much better.
Hawkins’s novel depicts the life of Rachel, the eponymous girl on the train, who commutes to work everyday in an alcohol fuelled stupor staring at her former home, where her husband, new wife and new baby live. She watches another house nearby, and begins to romanticise the couple that live there, naming them ‘Jason’ and ‘Jess’ and concocting backstories for them. Then the wife disappears, and everything begins to turn sinister.
The narrative here splits between the viewpoints of the principal three women characters, Rachel, her husband’s new wife Anna and Megan, the real name of ‘Jess’, the missing woman. These contrasting perceptions of the same story serve to break the narrative up, although Hawkins’s constant movement over the timeline makes for occasional confusion.
Through the middle of the novel the tension becomes very slack, as the book’s central premise- the movement of the trains beside the houses which serve as the main setting- begins to tire, but following this short interlude the novel becomes highly charged. Hawkins’s outlandish plot is both fast paced and terrifyingly plausible as the text rattles to its conclusion in the manner of the very locomotives she depicts.
What is truly amazing about The Girl on the Train is how it breaks genre conventions so dramatically. In a novel which features exclusively women’s voices, the form tends to portray an exclusive, enclosed view of the world. The opposite is true here: Rachel’s world is so expansive it is daunting, and is a major factor in creating the confusion that ultimately drives this novel. The huge gaps that begin to form in her memory act as subterfuge: they allow the badness to enter her life and the narrative.
The depiction of domestic violence and male manipulation is in equal parts sensitive and chilling, with the tormentor eventually exposed as a master in deceit, at the expense of multiple women. Yet this novel isn’t glorifying in the horror of this, making it seem glamorous and unlikely, as in so many novels involving domestic violence. Instead, Hawkins invokes sheer terror in her ending by highlighting how easy it was for the perpetrator of this violence to manipulate the women in his life, and how easily ignored women are by the authorities. In so doing, Hawkins turns what could easily have been a middling, two bit page turner, into a true masterpiece.