open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
(Photo: “Houses from the train” by Chris Barker)
The hype surrounding Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller novel, The Girl on the Train, made it impossible for anyone to ignore its existence. With comparisons being drawn to Gone Girl, anyone would be tempted to see whether the novel lives up to its hype. I find myself being drawn to the book simply by its title. It’s not the most original titles (there are two different movies, if I’m not mistaken, bearing the same title) but when you forget for a moment that the book is classified under ‘mystery thriller’, then the book could almost describe me. Or you. Or anyone else we know. The notion that the title could refer to anyone of us the readers is alluring in a romantic way.
Except that the story is really not. Romantic, alluring or otherwise. It’s actually a sad and depressing story narrated by three women who have serious problems in their lives. Two are battling depression, and the last one lives in fear and suspicion. Then again, what do you expect when the main narrator, whom we can call the main character of this story, is a divorced alcoholic who’s let herself and her life go into complete and utter ruin?
Her name is Rachel and she takes a commuter train from Ashbury, where she lives, to Euston station, in London, where she works. Or so she says… Soon we will find out that there’s a great big lie about that train ride. During her daily ride, though, Rachel watches the people living in a row of Victoria houses she passes on her way. We find out that she watches them because she used to be one of them – she actually lived in one of those houses when she was still married to Tom, who has since divorced her and married another woman. Rachel’s alcoholism plays a huge part in her and Tom’s separation and now this sad old drunk is reduced to watching and longing for her old life from the train. Her favorite person to watch is a pretty young woman named ‘Jess’. It doesn’t matter that ‘Jess’ is a name she created in her own mind for this person; she just likes to watch her and fantasize about Jess’ life and being her. This is another reason why the book is so relatable to me, as well as many of the readers I’m sure, because people watching is something I like to do and, like Rachel, I come up with ‘characters’ based on those people. But the story Rachel constructed in her own mind contrasts wildly from the reality. That woman she watches is actually named Megan and she has her own story to tell, as she’s the second narrator of the story.
Rachel’s and Megan’s stories connect in the most sinister way. One day, Megan disappears and is feared to be dead. Rachel, being an avid observer of that row of houses, has witnessed something that she’s convinced could be a clue to her disappearance. Things are made worse when she experiences an alcohol-induced blackout that occurs in the area where Megan lives, where Rachel used to live. After all, she likes to come by her old house to harass her ex and his new wife. Rachel vacillates between thinking she was responsible for Megan’s disappearance and believing that a man is involved in the mystery, making this girl on the train the most unreliable of narrators. And that’s how Paula Hawkins builds her mystery.
To be completely honest, it’s flimsy. Trying to solve a mystery through the accounts of an alcoholic who experience blackouts is an obvious ploy to confuse readers. A more careful reader will be able to see through the shroud, though, by assuming that some events that Rachel tells are red herring. This is what I did and managed to get through to heart of the matter before I even got halfway to the book. I don’t say this to be boastful, but to be critical of how mystery writers build their case: if you’re trying to bamboozle your readers, don’t. Many readers are smart and they, like me, do not appreciate being taken for a fool.
Fortunately, Rachel herself is an intriguing character. She’s thoroughly unlikable at first and it’s hard to go through her drunken episodes with her. Addicts are always hard to make sympathetic but Rachel eventually prevails by showing determination to get to the bottom of the mystery. The psychological aspect of someone who abuses substance and has been abused by her environment is the reason why I wanted to stick with her until the end, no matter how disgusting I think she’s behaving. There’s no ‘Girl Power!’ winning moment here but in the end you can see how Rachel finally achieves the strength needed for her to overcome everything from her dependence of alcohol to the male affection and it’s quite a shining moment to bask in.
That’s also why despite Hawkins providing us with two other narrators – one from Megan, who’s no more reliable because she’s also got her own demons to chase, and the other from Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife – it’s still still Rachel’s voice that comes out the strongest. I personally find Anna’s point of view boring because she’s self absorbed and tells us nothing that we don’t already know. Sure, she helps uncloak the mystery in the end but her contribution comes too little, too late. On the other hand, Megan should probably get a book of her own. Her life story is just as complicated and as interesting as Rachel’s is… sadly, there’s not much of her left once we find out that she’s gone. Yet, when all is said and done, there’s nothing else more interesting than Rachel.
Not even the culprit to Megan’s disappearance and death. The murderer and the murderer’s motives were even less interesting than Rachel’s journey. But don’t let me discourage you: they are still very terrifying. How can anyone be so despicable? Hawkins doesn’t answer it – she gives us neither rhyme nor reason for the murderer’s crime – and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s enough that the act was done and we are all shocked by it. Perhaps more for some people than it is for others, but the conclusion is quite explosive even for anyone’s standards.
So perhaps this book is not so much a ‘mystery’ but simply a ‘thriller’. I wouldn’t say it’s a brilliantly constructed mystery but it’s a thrilling ride to go through with a main character who’s so flawed that she mostly makes you want to scream at her. If you get pulled into the fragility of her mind like I did, you might find something more. But if you’re waiting for an Amy Dunne-like ballsiness and sheer brilliance, you definitely won’t find anything of the like. For one thing, The Girl on the Train is a much subtler book than its American counterpart. It’s not a riot, but a quiet protest. Not crazy, just dark. And heavy and messy and painful.