Hello again! The novel I’m reviewing this week is the fairly recent thriller by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train. The book has achieved global success since its publication in early 2015 and was the most sold hardback book in the UK for 30 weeks running, setting a new record! (Guardian). The Girl on the Train is a fictional story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator which covers issues relating to domesticity, violence, alcoholism and many more.
Rachel, the girl on the train, sees life from the inside of a train carriage, a commute she makes every day, despite having no job. She constructs and shapes a perfect life for a couple who live opposite the railway line, who she sees and looks out for every day. However, her voyeuristic position clouds her judgement from reality, and what she sees from the comfort of the train is very different in real life. The imaginary lives she believes they had, along with her fictional names for them, are gone in an instant. She knows she can help them in some way, but the problem is, she just can’t remember how. Rachel’s memory is the key to unlocking the secrets outside of the train doors, but also a way of piecing together her own life.
This was the most gripping novel I have read for a while, particularly after having a long break from reading following the end of term and exams. Hawkins creates a positive female character through Rachel, despite her addiction and the resulting frustration the reader has to her complete lack of memory or responsibility. As Rachel finds purpose in life through the people from the train, she propels the story onwards through her step-by-step realisations, keeping even the most astute reader on their toes. The novel is told in diary-like entries from the perspective of alternating characters in the story. Whilst Hawkins gives us the perspectives of multiple narrators, these do not serve to clarify the mysteries; the reader is plunged into deeper layers of instability, jealousy and lies through almost every character. Hawkins defies writing a predictable novel as it becomes increasingly harder to disentangle whose motive is innocent and what can be classified as rational behaviour. At times the novel was quite shocking; the majority of the male characters suffer from bouts of anger and are not presented in a particularly flattering light. Rachel’s character always seemed to know exactly what not to do, the innocent victim always in the wrong place at the wrong time. I couldn’t decide who responsible and frequently changed my mind as to who the culprit was. The very vividly described violent ending was distressing, but created a more satisfying ending with a restoration of justice amongst the characters.
The novel delves into alcohol addiction and the impact of it on the person, as well as on those around them. Hawkins handles such a sensitive issue well; although at the beginning all of the stereotypes are present, that alcoholics are lazy, disinterested and irresponsible people, Rachel goes on a journey throughout the novel to gain personal accountability and truth. This search, originally to help the couple she sees from the train, might even become her own search. I found it interesting how so many characters in the book make a direct connection between alcohol consumption and criminality and violence. It takes over how Rachel is perceived by others- no one will trust her and consequently her authority and power as a character is non-existent. Similarly, in the suspense-filled novel Gone Girl the narrator is victimised by the police and the media and has to fight to prove his innocence. To regain her power she must piece together what she can remember and prove other characters wrong. Through Rachel’s character, Hawkins explores a potentially destructive addiction and finds an exterior means of recovery through the façade of the ‘perfect couple’. The narrative perspective of an alcoholic was one type of unreliable narrator that I have not discovered previously.
The novel handles upsetting issues like alcoholism and domestic violence, so perhaps not for those who might find this triggering or too distressing. However, it is also a well written page turner which will change your perspective on what you choose to notice in the outside world, the need to break free from our sometimes self-centered thought bubbles.
The next book review will be of The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies.