by Paula Hawkins
416 pages, Black Swan
This review is of the audio version, read by Claire Corbett, India Fisher and Louise Brealey
Review by Pat Black
This year’s mega-seller, The Girl on the Train is a British companion piece to Gone Girl, forming a transatlantic sisterhood of damaged women.
Like Gone Girl, Paula Hawkins’ novel has more than one narrator – three, in fact – but none you can trust. It also follows a similar split time-scale as Gillian Flynn’s book, starting with the girl in the title, Rachel.
She is a complete mess. She’s divorced, and her former husband and his new wife have a baby, living in what used to be her marital home. It’s fair to say this bothers her.
Rachel wanted a child in her marriage, but could not conceive. The fact of her ex-husband’s new baby is a particularly vicious slap in the face for someone who’s suffered more than a few of those. Traumatised and shattered, with her life in ruins, Rachel is a full-bore alcoholic. She has lost her job after she turned up to work drunk. In many cases, drunkenness at work is The Final Straw alcoholics need to push them towards seeking help… but not in Rachel’s case.
Afraid to tell her landlady that she’s been sacked for fear of ending up on the streets, Rachel continues to travel into the centre of London every day on the train, pretending to be at work. She intends to use this time to apply for jobs in libraries, but sometimes she ends up in the pub instead. She often has a drink on the train during her phantom commute, to take the edge off; usually those pre-mixed gin and tonics.
Rachel’s daily journey takes her past the street she used to live on. Although seeing the old house with its new family unit is painful for her, she becomes interested in another couple she spies a few doors down. Rachel admits she’s a fanciful lass, and she constructs identities and lifestyles for this couple which don’t match the reality. She’s not only nosey, but a fantasist, too. We can’t trust a word Rachel says.
One day, Rachel is shocked to notice the girl in the house kissing a man who isn’t her husband.
Then the girl disappears.
This girl is called Megan, and her strand of the story takes place earlier, leading up to the crisis point which Rachel is trying to resolve. Megan has a troubled past, stemming from the death of her brother in a motorcycle accident when she was just a girl. She has a history of running away and getting involved with inappropriate men; there’s even a soliciting charge on her record. Megan seems on-track now, has plenty of cash and, until the smug-sounding patrons put her off, used to run an art gallery. But she cannot settle.
More than once she refers to the wanderlust in her, a desire to run away. She is a risk-taker and a cheat, embarking on a relationship with a therapist after her husband urges her to seek professional help for mental health issues.
Megan blithely causes chaos to serve whims which most people keep hidden, if they have them at all. Her relationship with the therapist soon becomes obsessive. But there is a suggestion that, in turn, her husband Scott is a controller, constantly checking up on Megan’s emails, keeping a tight rein on the type of friends she sees in her spare time, organising, scrutinising and criticising. Megan doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong.
Rachel and Megan are so chaotic that parts of their stories were difficult to listen to. Megan speeds towards trouble at 100mph, utterly oblivious, while Rachel makes some godawful decisions and then tells a pack of lies about them.
But Hawkins has a trick up her sleeve. Soon, we meet Anna. She’s the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. In contrast to the other two, Anna seems composed, fulfilled and happy. As a result, she is almost unbearable. She’s a yummy mummy, going to spin classes and engaging in competitive parenting with her NCT group; someone who enjoys baking and crafts and yoga. Anna’s not disturbed or unreasonable. But we don’t quite trust her, either. She somehow makes Rachel and Megan seem more human, more appealing, in spite of their colossal flaws.
Anna feels no sense of shame or guilt over wrecking Rachel and Tom’s relationship. Rachel was an obstacle, something to be clambered over and forgotten about. And Rachel knows this, even as she engages in some bad behaviour over the new family which crosses the line into stalking.
Rachel’s behaviour stretched credibility, at times. We’re not talking let’s-investigate-that-funny-noise-in-the-basement silliness, but not far off it. She produces a steady stream of pish for the police investigating Megan’s disappearance, and I couldn’t help but think: why? Why on earth did you say that? Why are you even getting involved in this?
Rachel makes unbearably stupid decisions, so much so that I grew exasperated with the character. She’s a meddler, at times almost completely estranged from common sense. But at least this holds true to her character - and her affliction. She’s out of control, but she thinks she’s trying to help, even if she is a bit nosey and interfering; even if her view of events doesn’t tally with reality.
I know a few people like that. And if you’ve never been that sort of hapless drunk at some point in your life, however briefly, you’ll know someone who has.
Rachel holds the key to the whole affair - but it’s locked up in her head. On the night Megan disappeared, Rachel was blind drunk and loitering in her street, harassing her own ex and his wife. Through the mists of Rachel’s blackout, there’s something violent lurking, a horrible thing she did, or had done to her. There is the terrifying suspicion that she might have something to do with Megan’s disappearance.
Paula Hawkins expertly places her pieces on the board – absolutely anyone could be involved in the disappearance. No-one is exempt from suspicion. There’s even a mysterious man with red hair involved in the story. Maybe he should have been called Mr Herring? All said and done, The Girl on the Train passes the mystery test – it keeps you guessing, right to the end.
Like Gone Girl, this is a story completely without heroes. I didn’t like any of the main characters. Even the detectives leading the case are grim, sardonic snipes. The canny DS Riley is all over Rachel’s fairy stories, picking over the parts where she doesn’t make sense. But you always see her as an antagonist - even when Rachel gets herself in deeper trouble with every lie she tells.
And, as with Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train makes no apologies about painting women in an unflattering light, with terrible, often unforgivable flaws. There is no Madonna/whore complex here, no Mary Sues. Rachel and Megan are uncontrollable – what a filthy word to spring to mind, a heartless word, a man’s word – but they’ve been scarred and let down by life, and their world is a frightening, brutal place. To Hawkins’ great credit, you cannot entirely abandon sympathy for them.