A lot has been said about The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, particularly in comparison to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Both are thrillers with unreliable narrators at the centre and both have stuff to say about women and modern relationships. I love them equally – it doesn’t have to be a choice, does it? This isn’t Desert Island Discs – but I think the main conceit is better in Train than Gone Girl.
The Girl on the Train follows Rachel, who is spiralling out of control after the end of her relationship with her ex-husband. She takes the same train every day – apparently to work – and as the train stops every day at the same signal, she invents an imaginary life for the couple who live in the house opposite. It’s a life she obviously wishes she had, and at the first opportunity – when the woman goes missing – she plants herself into the story. What makes the book exceptional however, isn’t just the interesting plot. It’s the way it’s told.
It can be hard sometimes to completely believe in a thriller once the main conceit is revealed. In Gone Girl, for instance, it became harder for me to care as much about the book once the moral ambivalence of the central character, Amy, is revealed – not because I liked her any less, but because it was clear then what she intended to do and the mystery was gone; you knew where the book was going.
What makes Rachel, in The Girl on the Train so wonderful to follow, is that she isn’t so much morally ambivalent as just drunk, depressed and lost. So, we’re not entirely sure if she’s guilty or innocent. We can’t tell if she’s involved, you don’t know what she’s done and you can’t tell if she’s reliable or not (or rather, if her drunken memories are reliable or not). We have to piece together the story bit by bit, with her, and that makes it interesting. I flinched with her, every morning, when she woke up in a panic, trying to run through the events from the day before. It’s a wonderful way to reveal the story, lots of oh-my-god-what-has-she-done-now? moments and it also kept me involved in where the mystery was going until the last possible moment. It’s also written very convincingly and chimes with a wonderfully written article on alcoholism and drunken “black outs” by Sarah Hepola in The Guardian this week (you can find it here).
You feel sorry for her and her need to stay involved in strangers’ lives but at the same time, there’s something very human about her situation and I liked her a lot, not in spite of her flaws but because of them.
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