There is something of the revenge tragedy in Paula Hawkins’ novel, The Girl on the Train. A renaissance play, The White Devil, springs to mind. The grim relentlessness of the plot, working like tiny wheels over a dirty track. The constant shifting of how we view the story’s lovers.
You might decide, as I did, that you don’t want to get off at the next station. The doors back into the world may be jammed by the thrill of being held page after page as gripped as The White Devil’s heroes staring at a skull; you simply, morbidly, cannot look away.
I read this novel for my monthly book club. Its rave reviews and bestseller status (over a million copies sold in the UK alone) had ensured I would pick it up at some point but when a book is this hyped (Harry Potter, Dan Brown, 50 shades) I tend to feel a nudge of dread, as though I’m being nagged into submission by an overzealous media.
But in this case, my dread was unfounded. The media have a point.
The Girl on the Train’s greatest strengths are plot and place. There was a brief moment a fifth of the way through when I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve figured it out,’ but I was joyously wrong. It is in fact, a classic whodunit without a detective in the main frame. The nearest we get is Rachel – appropriately surnamed Watson – not sleuth or formal suspect, like her namesake, she sits on the periphery of the investigation, neither vital nor entirely superfluous.
That she finds herself on the edge of the plot’s platform staring in at the main action for much of the novel is the grist of the book’s emotional centre. For Rachel has cast herself as outsider and though we may read many references to the flutter in her heart, its beating, its racing, it is her mind that has truly taken over, leading her further and further into the very territory from which she has been ousted. Like a child picking at a scab on her knees from a fall, she wants to see what’s underneath. Part of her wanting it to heal and the other, still frozen, in the past, by its cause.
The story goes something like this (look away now if even a plot is a spoiler!): A woman disappears. Another woman (Rachel) who has never met her, gets involved. Rachel sits daily on a train from the suburbs to Euston and allows her mind to play a game of What If.
Rachel is probably the closest we get to empathizing with any of the characters and this, I feel, is only because we know her a little better. As in Webster’s play, Hawkins’ characters are hard to love. Not necessarily a bad thing, in a crime thriller. Better by far than to experience what the novelist Imogen Robertson describes as characters ‘too good to be true.’ No risk of that here.
Hawkins’ trains and platforms, trackside back gardens and fetid underpasses are glorious in their grit and mundane British detail. If setting can be seen as almost another person in the novel’s world, then the writer seems to know this character best of all. It is this sense of place which underpins every sordid action that follows, allows the reader to believe entirely in the premise. Girl comes first in the title but Train is her ever-present co-star with its staring, alienating commuters pushing Rachel further into an exile of her own making.
Like many thrillers, TGOTT is a book about memory. It has echoes of Before I go to Sleep (Watson again. SJ). Recall – or its lack – make us vulnerable, as open as a wound to contamination. But the premise here is very different. Where better to explore its power than with one whose work is almost entirely built on the way we frame the past – a therapist.
The author, Paula Hawkins, is far from straightforward in her handling of Dr Abcic, a character who is both pivotal to the plot and a potential for good. But Hawkins deftly sidesteps the predictable path of moralizing or even redeeming each of her characters’ failings. Every one of them is flawed. They all have a past. A temper even. It’s just a question of degree, or perhaps, circumstance.
It is the women’s voices that we read. The men are seen through female lenses and it is in the subtleties of romantic relationship, the interplays of power, control and their antidote, love, that Hawkins’ writing excels. To be fair, there isn’t much love floating about for, just like in Webster’s work, its innocence is short lived. A darkening plot rolls on occasionally pausing, mainly gathering momentum towards…
Actually, I can’t say where this particular train is heading because that would spoil the suspense. What I will say is that if you happen to be commuting to London, Euston even, from about an hour away, you’ll probably get through it in one return trip.
And if you do see anything from the train window in the rare moments that you look up across the platform and into the houses beyond, please don’t be alarmed if your thoughts get carried away. We need more books like this. Built on the power of imagining, of taking a premise, putting it on a locomotive and seeing how far it can go.
Have you read this novel? Your views as always are welcome…
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