Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Girl on the Trian cover
I'm not normally a crime or thriller reader, but this book has been absolutely everywhere this January so I thought I'd see what all the fuss is about and give it a go. Radio 2 have chosen it as one of their Book Club choices and Mr Mayo is normally on the ball when it comes to spotting a future bestseller.

The premise of this book fascinated me. Rachel, the Girl on the Train, passes the same row of houses every day on her commute from Buckinghamshire to London. Stopping at a signal, her stationary train normally looks out into the gardens of the street where she once lived with her husband Tom. He lives there still with his new wife Anna and their baby. Unable to look at her old (and only real) home, she instead focuses on the one a few doors down, home to a beautiful, happy couple she names Jess and Jason in her head. She daydreams about their perfect lives, their blissful happiness and their fulfilling jobs. One Friday she catches a glimpse of something that shatters her daydream- and the following day 'Jess', real name Megan, disappears.

Rachel's memory from that Saturday night is non-existent. She knows she was there when Megan disappeared, she was on that street; there was blood (hers?), the underpass, a woman in a blue dress and a train man with red hair that keep emerging, confused and hazy in her mind. Convinced that 'Jason' (who turns out to actually be Scott) would never harm the wife she imagines he was devoted to, Rachel goes to the police, determined to give them the information that she has. They dismiss her as an unreliable witness; at best a desperate rubbernecker, at worst a drunk with a malicious revenge motive on her ex husband's new family.

The narrative is split between three women who all speak in the first person. Mostly it's Rachel; she struggles with alcohol and jealousy, is prone to drunk dialling and harassment and suffers from huge, gaping blackouts. Her lifestyle is depressing and unflinching- the stair-vomit, the urine soaked jeans and boozy oblivion makes her a fairly unusual main character. We also see from Anna's perspective- her baby bliss, her frustration at having the husband's ex hanging around all the time, the gooey isolation of new motherhood. Finally we see from Megan's angle in the months up to her disappearance and the conflicts and struggles she undergoes in her own head.

I liked how frustrating Rachel was as a character. She's self-destructive and pathetic, depressed and quite spiteful at times. But she gets better. As the book goes on, more of the more seemly characters are revealed to be less pleasant than they appear. The more Rachel finds out about Megan the less she likes her. The more the reader hears from Anna, the more she seems a smug, troublemaking little madam. Scott and Tom, the husbands, get less charming as the chapters go on. The author really does a good job of showing that relationships, people's very identities are unstable and built upon ever shifting sands. Even the most well-loved, most familiar individual in a person's life could turn out to be somebody else entirely, an absolute stranger.

Whilst this was a well paced, engaging narrative with some interesting characters and probably a good example of its genre, I can't say it made a huge impression on me. Personally I struggle to enjoy this type of book. It's not just about the emotional/physical abuse that's common in the domestic thriller genre, the gruesome deaths of women and the (often) debauched criminality of ordinary-seeming men- I can live with that. It's more about the predictability of the narrative. I guessed where this book was going about half way, I guessed pretty much exact reason for the disappearance of Megan too. Can a plot be predictable and yet still feel like it doesn't quite fit? I don't know.

Anyway- it's perhaps unfair for me to say that I don't go in for thrillers/crime and then say that I didn't hugely enjoy this book because it was one. I'm sure it's a really good thriller and that loads of people will love it. I'm glad I read it. It offers something new in its bedraggled, alcohol soaked amateur detective that actually probably hinders the less than thorough investigation, and will enjoy a massive readership I'm sure. The writing was good. I believed in (most of ) the story and the characters, and nothing stood out as being massively expositional, no annoying overuse of particular words (a pet peeve of mine), the novel kept up a good pace and really drew attention to the reality of the domestic situations of some women. I don't doubt for a moment that there aren't people out there who have realised that they've been lied to and manipulated, put in horrific danger by the people that are supposed to love them and then blamed for it. All in all, it was probably a good book, but it's not for me.

I still love the idea of life glimpsed through a moving train window though, the filling in the blanks in the lives of strangers.

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