She may not see you when you’re sleeping, but she knows when you’re awake.
Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
First Published: 13th January 2015
Date Reviewed: 14th January 2016
Every day Rachel takes the train to work and back home; she has a favourite house on the route whose occupants she’s made up life stories for. She gets used to their routine, seeing them in their garden most days that summer but one day the man stands alone and the news breaks that the woman has disappeared. Rachel had seen her with another man and it occurs to her that she might be able to help with the inquiries.
The Girl On The Train is a chilling psychological thriller with no reliable characters. Constantly compared to Gone Girl, there are some similarities but the atmosphere differs.
It’s the page-turner factor that stands out most in this respect. Whilst other thrillers make you want to speed through their pages, Hawkins’ book stays steady, a bit like a steadily moving train, ironically. You do want to keep reading because the execution is excellent, bar none, but there’s a subtlety to it, the feeling that you could put the book down, it’s just you don’t want to at present. You will finish the book quickly enough whilst feeling you were able to relax. Yes, for all grimness you’ll enjoy an even ride.
To this excellent execution then; this book is well-paced, well-plotted, and well-edited. In hindsight you can see that Hawkins gives the whodunnit away fairly early, in fact when you look back you can see the neon lights blazing above the person’s head. The reason you don’t see, straight away, who the criminal is is because of all the work Hawkins has put in to fleshing out the characters. She makes you sceptical of everyone – everyone is unreliable, in part because you come to feel they should be (that’s not to say they are in fact reliable, more that Hawkins messes your head up). The book feeds off a sort of reader prejudice, if you will, in which Hawkins plants an idea and lets you run with it. But of course you’re right to be sceptical – as much as this author-reader interaction is a game, it’s something that’s important. The nature of the situation requests that you learn how to identify who you’re looking for, to work out how to spot lies and manipulation.
Aside from their unreliability, none of the characters are particularly likeable. You’ll find yourself wondering if perhaps you should be sympathetic – and right at that time Hawkins comes in and messes with your head again. This is an author who is on the ball, who has thought of everything.
There obviously comes a time when you work it out but it’s not at the end. No, Hawkins keeps the book going for a good amount of time after this reveal, skirting the line between perfect length and too much, so you can get that bookish satisfaction. She keeps up a thin thread of mystery right until the end.
Rachel’s life is marred by her failed marriage. It’s marred by her childlessness, the depression this caused, the drinking it resulted in. The character’s unreliability is down in part to her inability to retain memories, due to drink and sometimes a sort of blanking out of the event. Is it convenient? Most certainly, but we wouldn’t have a book if she just knew everything. In this way, The Girl On The Train echoes Elizabeth Is Missing; both books feature heroines (anti-heroine in Hawkins’ case?) trying to solve puzzles they’ve forgotten the clues to. Rachel sports bruises she can’t remember getting, realising that’s par for the cause, but it makes her think nonetheless.
Through Rachel, because of her utter despair, Hawkins is able to delve into issues. She can have Rachel repeat things, which might be annoying but is understandable. Whilst unlikeable in a way you know is down to genre, Rachel comes across as real. Her issues are grounded in reality, and despite your uncertainty as to her role in the disappearance Hawkins urges you to empathise. This is a woman who needed help and didn’t get it, who has gone crazy from pain and instead of support has received scorn, at least from those she wants support from. She wears out those who care. Part of this whole thread, this subplot of sorts, relies on the ending and shows how easy it can be for someone to slip through the net. Whilst the emphasis is of course on the thriller aspect, Hawkins’ writing about what Rachel’s dealing with is important. The other characters, particularly the two other narrators are focused on, too, if for a lesser amount of time. In the case of issues this is largely a book about women but it’s not exclusive.
The writing itself is pleasant. It flows well, Hawkins makes good use of language and whilst it’s not going to be called literary fiction any time soon in terms of the text it’s not too far from it either.
The Girl On The Train isn’t going to wow everyone and it’s the sort of book that is ripe to disappoint if your expectations are too high. It’s best to go into it with a view to having a good reading time, to enjoy the journey an author can take you on. It isn’t Gone Girl and your feelings for that book won’t necessarily translate to this one whichever way you felt. Take this book as an individual and for what it is; hop aboard and take a seat.
January 15, 2016, 5:43 pm
I felt this way about The Girl on the Train, too. It moved along, but wasn’t totally gripping. I guessed a little too early where it was going, although not exactly. (SPOILER ALERT……………………………………………………………………………………………………..The way it was compared to Gone Girl right away is a bit of a spoiler because you’re expecting a twist.)
January 15, 2016, 6:26 pm
A book I’ve put off reading as I’ve read so much about it that as you rightfully point out I’m afraid the hype would leave me expecting too much and therefore perhaps left feeling disappointed.
Great review, thank you for sharing your thoughts.
January 16, 2016, 10:57 pm
I enjoyed it in audio, with 3 female narrators, that made it easy to follow. Well done
January 17, 2016, 2:57 am
I thought the audio was very well done. I really felt sorry for Rachel more than I actually disliked her. It really was no wonder the way she was given everything that had happened to her.
January 17, 2016, 12:08 pm
Interestin g connection to Elizabeth is Missing. Both have protagonists with memory failure though of course one is self induced.
January 18, 2016, 10:32 am
Laurie: You know, it’s weird, it wasn’t totally gripping yet most of the time that didn’t matter. I wonder if that’s down to confidence in the author. That’s true about what you wrote in the spoiler – spoiler alert here, too – you are expecting a twist and something nasty; it’s good that even if the personality is similar, the set up is different.
Tracy: In that case I’d recommend leaving it a while longer before you decide for definite. It’s worth letting the hype die down.
Emma: That sounds a good way of handling the audio indeed.
Literary Feline: I’m intrigued by it now, that’s for sure. I knew they use different voices at times for recordings, but I thought it was very rare. (I’ve not much knowledge, admittedly.) I’m with you on that one; (potential spoiler incoming) she started off a bit annoying, though it was more the trying to work out how reliable she was factor for me and I quickly grew to understand she’d had a worse time than we perhaps knew at the time. I felt Hawkins wanted to make her understandable as much as she was irritating, to make her real as such.
Karen: That’s an interesting point, Karen. It is self-induced but I couldn’t help but wonder if a bit was manipulated to be forgotten, too, if that makes sense.