One From the Archive: ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins ****

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on The Train is a number one bestseller, which has been incredibly well reviewed.  S.J. Watson, author of the incredibly clever Before I Go To Sleep, calls it ‘a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read’, and Stephen King says that it kept him up for ‘most of the night’. 9780857522313

The premise of The Girl on the Train is both simple and clever; Rachel Watson, our protagonist, ‘catches the same commuter train every morning.’  Each time, a signal stops it in exactly the same place, allowing her a view of a row of suburban back gardens.  One morning, ‘she sees something shocking.  It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.  Now everything’s changed.  Now Rachel has the chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar…  She’s much more than just the girl on the train’.

The book’s opening passage – a prologue of sorts – is so intriguing, and definitely makes one want to read on: ‘She’s buried beneath a silver bitch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn…  I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance.  She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains’.

Rachel’s is the first perspective which is made use of, with the starting point of July 2013.  Of her daily journey, she tells us: ‘Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.  There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home’.  We learn, rather early on, that the street which the train stops at is Blenheim Road – the place in which she used to live, in her first self-owned home with her ex-husband, Tom.  There, she was both ‘blissfully happy and utterly wretched’.  It is clear from the outset that Rachel is troubled; an untold event seems to be overshadowing everything for her, and she has turned to alcohol to seek solace.  She is a complex narrator; whilst she is lonely and, some would say, untrustworthy, there is a feisty side to her which beats its way to the fore when it is warranted: ‘Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing?  It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.  Hatred floods me.  If I saw that woman now… I would spit in her face.  I would scratch her eyes out’.

Some of the events which Rachel participates in are obscured by her alcoholism, so the story often appears fragmented.  This is an intelligent plot device, and one which piques the interest of the reader: ‘It comes over me like a wave, black dread.  Something happened, I know it did.  I can’t picture it, but I can feel it…  I’m frightened, but I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, which just exacerbates the fear’.  She then goes on to candidly say, ‘I feel like I am part of this mystery.  I’m connected.  I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose’.

The rest of the book uses the alternating perspectives of Rachel, Megan and Anna, whose paths intersect at times.  Their voices are all relatively distinctive.  The differing vantage points and times in which these narrative voices are set add depth to the whole, and allow Hawkins to tell a story within a story within a story.  The pivotal plot points come at perfect moments, and the pieces cleverly slot into place as the novel goes on.  The mysteries deepen, and complexities give the whole a wonderfully layered texture.  Hawkins’ structure is effective; a relatively short entry is given for each day, morning and evening, for each of the perspectives.

The Girl on The Train is Hawkins’ first thriller; this is surprising, in many ways, as it feels as though she is incredibly comfortable writing within the genre.  There is nothing about the novel which does not strike one as polished and well crafted.  The Girl on The Train is gripping and difficult to put down.  If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller with depth, look no further.

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The Book Trail: Albert Nobbs to The Pastor’s Wife

Another Book Trail is upon us.  This begins with an underrated novella which I read back in August and very much enjoyed, and takes us through a wealth of fascinating Virago-esque books.

1. Albert Nobbs by George Moore
‘Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland.Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.’

2. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault 9781844089529
‘Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.’

3. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey
‘Considered one of the most subtle and beautifully written lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 classic returns to print in a Cleis Press edition. Dorothy Strachey’s classic Olivia captures the awakening passions of an English adolescent sent away for a year to a small finishing school outside Paris. The innocent but watchful Olivia develops an infatuation for her headmistress, Mlle. Julie, and through this screen of love observes the tense romance between Mlle. Julie and the other head of the school, Mlle. Cara, in its final months.’

97808606834074. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
‘Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’

5. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘In memory of the wife who had once dishonored and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this marvelous imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.’

6. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White 9781844083695
‘When Clara returns home from the convent of her childhood to begin life at a local girls’ school, she is at a loss: although she has comparative freedom, she misses the discipline the nuns imposed and worries about keeping her faith in a secular world. Against the background of the First World War, Clara experiences the confusions of adolescence – its promise, its threat of change. She longs for love, yet fears it, and wonders what the future will hold. Then tragedy strikes and her childhood haltingly comes to an end as she realises that neither parents nor her faith can help her.’

7. Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
‘Rich in period detail, lyrical in its evocation of the Thames, a novel that reveals both the problems of marriage and the ecstasies of sexual love’

97818440828038. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Ingeborg Bullivant decides spontaneously to join a tour to Lucerne-and returns engaged. Yet her new life as a rural Prussian pastor’s wife restricts her as much as her old; and when the dashing artist Ingram appears, musing about wondrous Italy, wanderlust tempts her a second time. Von Arnim’s accomplished and comic novel is based on her own first marriage and life in provincial Germany at the turn of the century.’

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‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith *****

Warning: gushing will ensue.  Please proceed with caution.

Well, it was no great surprise that Ali Smith’s Autumn is incredible.  I had originally asked my boyfriend to buy me a copy as my Christmas gift, and whilst he was happy to do so, I simply could not pass up the opportunity of reading a galley.  I am far too impatient when a new Ali Smith is released; she is my favourite living author, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, and meeting her whilst studying at King’s College London is the only time in my life that I have felt starstruck.

9780241207000Autumn is the first of four books in a seasonal sequence, and in my mind, it is the best choice to begin such a series with.  I adore all of the seasons, but autumn is a real joy; there is so much beauty around.  The novel has also been billed as a serious post-Brexit novel.  Brexit – that horrible word that my laptop is intent upon changing to the more kindly ‘Brett’ – is a decision which I still cannot believe has occurred; I find myself saddened by my fellow man, that such a wonderful and secure alliance could be severed so easily.  I have a feeling that these are Smith’s feelings too; the inference here, particularly when one takes the character of Elisabeth’s mother into account, are that Britain has made a mistake of great enormity, which will affect everyone in horrid ways.  Of the novel, in fact, she stated the following in a recent interview: ‘It’s a pivotal moment…  a question of what happens culturally when something is built on a lie’.

As anyone who has read her work before will know, Smith is incredibly sharp, and she has created, once again, a fantastic range of characters to people her latest novel.  The conversational patterns which strike up between them feel both unusual and realistic.  As always, Smith says a wealth of incredibly important things – about society, and humankind, and decision making, and friendship, and love.  She writes of the young and the old, the past and the future.

Smith’s prose, as always, is both stunning, and often profound: ‘It is a privilege, to watch someone sleep, Elisabeth tells herself.  It is a privilege to be able to witness someone both here and not here.  To be included in someone’s absence, it is an honour, and it asks quiet.  It asks respect’.  I could happily quote extensively here to further prove my point, so I shall.  ‘Time travel is real, Daniel said.  We do it all the time.  Moment to moment, minute to minute’.  The prose about Daniel’s younger sister was particularly compelling:

‘She dances round the room shouting the word he can hardly say himself in her presence.
She is mad.
But she is uncannily right about that story.
She is brilliant.
She is a whole new level of the world true.
She is dangerous and shining.’

Unlike the Brexit result, Autumn is perfect.  The material is incredibly well handled, and it is certainly one of her very best books to date; perhaps the very best, in fact.  I keep thinking that she can never get any better with each new release, and lo and behold, she does.  The novel’s wordplay is exhilarating.  Autumn is a triumph; compulsive and compelling, timely and timeless.  It is a wonderful, wondrous book.  When I reached the all to brief end, I was tempted to go right back to the beginning and read it all over again.

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‘The Wilding’ by Maria McCann **

‘This is a novel of secrets and revenge within a seventeenth-century English family. Longlisted for the Orange Prize 1672. A generation after the Civil War, Jonathan Dymond, a cider maker, has so far enjoyed a quiet life. But when he discovers a letter from his dying uncle, hinting an inheritance and revenge, he is determined to unravel the mystery in his family. Under the pretence of his cider business, Jonathan visits his newly widowed aunt and there meets her unruly servant girl, Tamar, who soon reveals that she has secrets of her own…’

9780571251872I purchased The Wilding because I have seen it around rather a lot lately, and one of my favourite bloggers (Jane at Beyond Eden Rock) gave it a four-star rating.  For me, <i>The Wilding</i> was rather a slow starter.  After reading many of the reviews of McCann’s <i>As Meat Like Salt</i>, I was expecting that her prose would blow me away, but I was left a little disappointed by it.  There was nothing wrong with her writing, per se, but it just didn’t tick many boxes for me.

Oddly, there was no real sense of history for the most part; I felt as though the story could have easily been transplanted into almost any place or time period without many of the details having to be altered.  I ultimately found the story very hard to connect with.  Generally when reading historical novels I feel swept away at points, but I did not have that experience here.  The relationship between Jonathan and his parents felt too close for this period too; they were forever smothering him and making loving physical contact, which is far removed from the historical realism which I’ve read in and around this period to date.

There is little vividness in the sparse descriptions given, and so little depth to the whole.  At no point did I feel compelled to keep reading, and could happily have given up on it and moved on to another tome at any point.  There was no real consistency in <i>The Wilding</i>, and whilst it isn’t an awful novel by any means, it’s not one which I would recommend.  The pace was rather slow, and the plot twists predictable.  I am left with rather a disappointed feeling.

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