A View from a Train: The Girl on the Train

sonder
n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
– The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrrows.

The idea of a narrator travelling back and forth to London by train is something a lot of us commuters can relate to, watching our fellow travellers go about their morning rituals, absorbed in their books, mobiles phones, iPads, staring out of windows and generally avoiding each other in all of our splendid British awkwardness.

“There is something comforting at the sight of strangers safe at home.”

the-girl-on-the-train-paula-hawkins

Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train follows Rachel and her daily train journey into London, giving us the chance to relate to the monotone journeys . Everyday it stops at the same place, giving her the chance to peer into the life of a young couple who live in a row of houses behind the railway tracks, whom she calls Jess and Jason. Daydreaming about their perfect relationship, Rachel becomes more and more obsessed with the details of their lives, embellishing their story and giving herself hope that happiness exists out there somewhere.

“It’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.”

But it also from here we learn that Rachel is not the perfect narrator – she’s depressed, self-pitying, and bitter. She has an alcohol-dependency problem, she’s lost her job, and her life is spiralling downwards and is looking like a dead-end. For there is another reason that this row of houses that her train stops at holds Rachel’s obsession – a few doors down from ‘Jess and Jason’ lives her ex-husband Tom, with his beautiful new wife and their baby in her old house.

“They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.”

If this isn’t bleak enough, events take a turn from this depressing start to get worse. Rachel wakes up from another drunken blackout, bruised and bloody and unable to remember the night before or how she got home. She also discovers that ‘Jess’, or Megan, as her real name is, has gone missing and that her seemingly perfect husband ‘Jason’ is the prime suspect. Becoming worried about her part in events, Rachel sets out to find out what happened in her lost hours, and also coming to terms with her own history with her ex-husband and their failed marriage.

The concept of this novel is an interesting one – intertwining the perspectives of three women; Rachel, the failed, miserable drunk, Megan, the missing woman and Anna, the beautiful wife who has replaced Rachel – all with their own flaws, problems and the events of one night which is seeped in mystery and ambiguity.

“I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.”

There is a sense of disorientation throughout this novel which can be off-putting, and the lines between Rachel’s reality and her memories and drunken impressions can blur together at time, making it confusing about what has already happened and what is the present. It’s also a little depressing – Rachel is not an attractive character, and the ugly scenes of her alcohol abuse is even more depressing, down to the urine-soaked underwear and vomit on the stairs outlining her unaddressed mental issues and her inability to change the predictability of her life.

A lot of reviewers have commented that they found this book difficult to like, and that Rachel is a hard character to relate to because she is so self-pitying, stalker-ish and weak, and that her lack of responsibility for her actions is very off-putting. I agree that it took time to get into this book because of this – she may be a commuter on the train to London, but not one that we feel a kinship with,  if anything she is the embarrassing passenger we all see and hope that they don’t sit next to us.

“So who do I want to be tomorrow?”

Despite this, there’s an interesting mystery at the core of this story – we see how Rachel’s ‘Jess’ is nothing like the real Megan, and how she is a flawed character mirroring Rachel, and similarly we see Anna’s role as the not-so-triumphant victor in marriage and mother-hood. It’s also interesting to re-interpret this novel – is it about identity? About mental illness? Or does it have a darker tone which makes us question what we will do when we are pushed to our limits?

“I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose.”

I won’t include any spoilers for anyone who is still waiting to pick up this book, but I will add that patience is needed if you want to read this, mainly because there is a lot of meandering before the story picks up, and also because the character makes you question what’s in her mind and what really has happened. And the other characters in the novel are just as unpleasant at times – there’s a nasty streak in some of them which makes us question their motives, our reluctant sympathy for Rachel and the notion of peering out of a window and looking at the lives of strangers.

An interesting thriller and definitely different to a lot of murder mysteries I have read before, but it may not be to everyone’s tastes and there’s an unpleasant taste at the end of it because you’re left disliking most of the characters.

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