By Maya Patterson
With clattering trains as their backdrop, the houses on Blenheim Road grip tightly onto their secrets. However, one passenger on the trains, Rachel, yearns to know more about the lives of those who live on Blenheim, so she begins to make up stories of their life.
Rachel, the first of three narrators in The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller, creates a life for the couple in No. 15 from her seat on the morning and evening trains, naming them Jess and Jason. She believes that they are happy and in love, similar to a life she had when she lived on the same street with her then-husband Tom in No. 23.
Yet in reality, Jess and Jason have neither a perfect marriage nor a perfect life. Rachel sees Jess, whose real name is Megan Hipwell, kissing another man one morning on her terrace. Megan, the second narrator, disappears that next night, and her story-telling sections go back into the previous year, describing how she was restless with her husband, Scott (the man Rachel called Jason), and detailing two tragic events in her past that she just couldn’t seem to move past.
Megan tried to be the best wife she could to Scott, even nannying for a while for Anna down the street in No. 23. Anna, the third and final narrator, is the new wife to Tom, Rachel’s ex-husband. She is sick and tired of Rachel constantly calling and showing up at their house, threatening to call the police nearly every time her name is mentioned.
Rachel is not only a stalker, she’s a drunk. In most of her narrations, she is drinking – swallowing a can of gin and tonic, or downing a full bottle of wine (or two) on her own. With all of the drinking she does, her narration is spotty at best. She blacks out drunk during the most important moments in her life.
While these blackouts make for good storytelling, adding further mystery to finding out if she actually knows what happened to Megan, the device sometimes becomes frustrating. The reader may want to scream at Rachel: “Why don’t you stop drinking so that you can remember what happens — for my sake, at least?” Rachel is, by every definition, that most vexing creature in fiction: the unreliable narrator.
Hawkins certainly succeeds in making Rachel, and all of the other characters seem very real. Each character has his or her own mental illness, whether it is alcoholism, bipolar disorder, or paranoia. There is not a sane one in the whole bunch, by design. After all, as Rachel says, “We are none of us perfect.”
The details of each character’s psychosis come very slowly, though, which is a flaw in the writing. The whole first half of the novel is slow- moving. The purpose of the story is not quite clear at first, and takes too long to grab a reader’s attention. However, once the action picks up, and Rachel becomes more clear-headed (sometimes), the pages fly by! So why didn’t Hawkins write the whole novel to be as gripping as the last half?
The juicy plot point – Megan’s disappearance – paints everyone as a suspect. Even our main character is a suspect, because she doesn’t remember if she had anything to do with it. She was, of course, too drunk.
Even though she doesn’t remember anything perfectly, Rachel feels that she could help solve the mystery based on her countless sightings of Megan from her seat on the morning train going to London, before she had a can of gin and tonic. She actively comes up with theories, much like the reader, ranging from Megan running away with another man because she was unsatisfied with Scott, to Megan being murdered, by whom Rachel does not know.
As the story unravels, we begin to see into the world of each of these women, and Hawkins weaves together these stories with skill, revealing more and more information with each new chapter, but never letting us know too much before cutting to the next narrator.
The story is hard to follow at first; there is so much to keep up with – the narrator, the date, the day of the week, the time of day – all just for one tidbit about the mystery. Yet switching up points of view helped to get the story moving, to capture the audience’s interest, and to create intrigue. While confusing, the narration was beautifully written and seamlessly integrated.
One way in which Hawkins does not succeed is tying the symbols and random plot-points together with the story. They seemed to be thrown in just to throw the reader off. New characters are introduced, characters that the reader might think have a great potential of being a suspect or a source of information, but really they lead to a dead end.
Regardless of the confusing symbols, The Girls on the Train is an exciting psychological thriller that will capture a reader’s interest with the characters, their unique narration, and the strange mystery on Blenheim Road. While the story is not one for romance-seekers, it does have an appeal that many of other novels lack: the unknown is behind every page-turn.