The Girl on the Train: Review


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.

Henning Mankell: An Obituary


As a true fan of the author I like to think of as the forefather of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, I thought I would share with you the obituary for Henning Mankell which I wrote shortly after his death last year.

Mankell was a talented, effortless writer who had the extraordinary talent of writing strange, deviant thoughts that were often unthinkable to normal, sane people, in a manner which made them seem logical.

He also had an eye for setting, and his most famous creation, Inspector Kurt Wallander, was characterised as much by the Skane countryside as he was by any of the sparse and unkind adjectives Mankell used to describe him.

Like many great detective fiction writers, Mankell grew to despise his creation, but his novels of the grumpy small town detective showcased innumerable narrative skills and had a richness and a humanity about them which raised them above the cheap thrills of traditional crime writing.

The Wallander novels are often political, with Mankell adding further dimension to already vastly emotive novels by posing critical questions on international and often uncomfortable issues, such as the Russian occupation of Latvia and the underlying racism inherent in Swedish culture, which was his first topic of discussion in the deftly plotted and skilfully crafted Faceless Killers.

His other works, most notably the stunning and haunting Depths, were so utterly sumptuous and rich in their use of language, even when read in translation, that they captivated audiences around the world, with Mankell’s work more popular in some countries than the Harry Potter series.

His novels transcribed many facets of life, highlighting the richness and the diversity of existence, from the existential crisis bought on by a haunted past he depicts in the beautifully dialogued Italian Shoes to the harsh, brutal and unglamorous reality of international conspiracy that pervades through The Man From Beijing.

Aside from his literary contributions, Mankell was a humanitarian, a great believer in caring for people who inspired many others through his work in Africa as well as his writing, which often reflected the harsh struggle many have to face and encouraged compassion and kindness. He fought tirelessly, even following his cancer diagnosis in 2014, which he chronicled in blog posts and essays on the process of cancer treatment and the mental and physical struggle he experienced.

The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks: Review


The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, represents a continuation of the revival of the pastoral genre, which was reinvigorated last year with the phenomenal success of Helen Macdonald’s excellent memoir H is for Hawk.

Primarily the comparison between The Shepherd’s Life and H is for Hawk is what drew me to Rebanks’ superb recollection of life rearing sheep in the Lake District. The books have been heavily compared and Macdonald is even quoted on the back cover of my copy.

Don’t get me wrong, the two books are fairly dissimilar. The subject matters differ greatly and there is a certain arrogance to Rebanks’s prose which contrasts with the self-deprication and uncertainty of Macdonald’s. However, there is a shared connection: the love of their landscape and the animals they rear on it.

Rebanks’ book focuses on his fascinating life as a shepherd working on the fells of the Lake District, interspersed with aspects of his  life outside of his work, his Oxford education and his family, which forms an intrinsic part of the narrative. Split between the four sessions, spring, summer, autumn and winter, the book charts both the farming calendar and his family’s progression, from the days of his beloved Grandfather, to his dad taking over the farm, through to teaching his young children the traditional ways that are still used to farm the fells.

As someone who grew up, for the most part (both in the sense that I didn’t live there all my life, and also am yet to fully grow up) in rural Dorset, I feel a certain empathy for the way Rebanks talks about the land he loves and the history of it. Rich history is a key part of rural communities and reading someone recount this with such vigour and overall understanding is a true pleasure. Rebanks’s passion, both for his animals and his land, is evident throughout the book, and enhances the brilliant narrative and strong, almost lyrical descriptions that at times make the book read like an extended poem.

Overall, this book is a real antidote to the excesses of modern life- escaping modern technology as much as they can, and avoiding mention of anything they cannot escape, the book highlights the traditions and evolutions of a landscape which is a central part of Britain’s rural heritage. A must read for anyone with a desk job looking for an intelligent and often witty insight into a world that seems so very far removed from their own.