The Girl on the Train was voted the number one book of 2015 by viewers of the ABC’s “The Book Club” television show. I suspect what that really means is it was the book read by most of the viewers of the ABC’s “The Book Club”. After all, you have to have read a book in order to want to vote for it. I’m only getting around to reading it now so obviously I wasn’t one of those people.
But even if I had read it before now, I wouldn’t have voted for it to be the number one book. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how some books can capture the imagination of the reading public, even when they’re not perfect, even when they’re not that original.
Paula Hawkins is a terrific writer and her characters are enticing, flawed and flawless at the same time. But the plot, which I’ve heard so many times promises a twist ending, was like many I’ve read before. I knew who the bad guy was long before the big reveal, so long before the big reveal that I actually expected it to be someone else, thereby providing the twist. But no.
Rachel Watson is the titular girl on the train. She takes the 8.04am to London every morning and at the same place every day the train slows and sometimes even stops, allowing her to spy on Jason and Jess in their backyard that borders the train line. Jason and Jess aren’t their real names, they’re the names that Rachel has given them as she watches, creating a glorious fictional world for them to exist in. One day she sees Jess in the backyard kissing a man who isn’t Jason. And a few days later, she finds out on the news that Jess is missing in suspicious circumstances.
Jess’s real name is Megan. The book transitions between Rachel and Megan’s points of view but while Rachel’s story is told about what is going on now, Megan’s story goes back to a year earlier to establish the events that led up to her going missing. It just so happens that Megan is babysitting the daughter of Rachel’s former husband, Tom, and his new wife, Anna. And so, two lives that should never have intersected start to intertwine irretrievably.
Rachel is an alcoholic and calls herself an “unreliable witness” – sometimes entire chunks of her memory go missing when she’s been drinking heavily – but she goes to the police to tell them that she saw Megan kissing someone who wasn’t her husband. They question the man she identifies – Megan’s therapist – but release him without charge. But she’s convinced he had something to do with her disappearance and involves herself deeper and deeper in the lives of the main players until the police start to think she might not be telling them everything she knows. The night Megan went missing Rachel was in the area Megan was last seen but she can’t remember what happened. She can barely remember even being there.
This book is full of wonderful characterisation. Rachel is drawn so well that despite the fact that she is constantly drunk, often falling and sometimes vomiting, I liked spending time with her. She tries to give up drinking but her life is such a disaster, even before Megan goes missing, that she finds it impossible. She needs a drink to get herself through difficult moments, which basically constitute her whole life, and once she starts, she can’t stop. She was once a functioning alcoholic but she isn’t anymore. She doubts herself constantly but as a reader I never did. Even when she was vomiting on the stairs and leaving it there for her roommate to find, I didn’t want to stop reading. Rachel is the triumph of this novel.
Megan was still well drawn but she was less open, interacting with unnamed characters, that sort of thing. I think Paula Hawkins deliberately withheld her from the reader in order to lengthen the suspense of the story. The story also transitions briefly to the perspective of Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s former husband, but she’s less convincing as a character and less interesting. Basically, she seems to be given a voice only so the reader can be told that Rachel has spent the past couple of years harassing Tom, begging him to come back to her, stalking the family, and once even trying to abduct Anna and Tom’s baby daughter, all while drunk, of course.
The story is less triumphant – people going about their ordinary and mundanely tortured lives, working, not working, trying to have babies, not wanting to have babies, relationships breaking up, new relationships beginning, baggage, jealousy, wondering, compromise. The underlying theme is trust, those we do, those we don’t, those we shouldn’t. But the book is suburban. It’s not shocking. It’s not surprising. It’s been done many, too many, times before.
Having said all of that, two (writing and characterisation) out of three (writing, characterisation and plot) isn’t bad. It certainly kept me entertained, I don’t regret or resent having read it and I will look out for Paula Hawkins’s future books. But don’t go into reading it thinking it will be the best book you will read all year. You’ll end up disappointed. But if you go into reading it hoping it will engage you for a week or so, it will definitely do that.
*First published on Goodreads 28 December 2015