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’.
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.