Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Books – The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

So in exciting news, today is Books and Things’s first birthday. I started this blog exactly a year ago today. 41 book reviews later, here we are. This is weird. Anyway, onwards:

Released earlier this year, The Girl on the Train is one of those books everyone is talking about. It’s sold over 1.5 million copies and the film rights have already been bought. Apparently it’s the next Gone Girl. The basic premise is as follows: Rachel, a divorcee turned alcoholic in her early-thirties, takes the same commuter train into London every day. From the train she can see the back gardens of her old street; sometimes she sees her ex-husband and his new wife, but mostly she watches their neighbours down the street, a seemingly perfect couple she nicknames Jess and Jason. Then, when ‘Jess’ (whose real name is Megan) goes missing, Rachel finds herself caught up in a mystery she doesn’t understand.

As it happens, I really wasn’t expecting to like this novel. Sometimes when books get as thoroughly hyped as The Girl on the Train has been, I start assuming they’re probably over-rated, or I lower my expectations just so I’m not disappointed if the book’s been built up too much. Besides that, I’m often tentative about picking up crime fiction or thrillers; I somehow got it into my head a few years ago that I don’t like thrillers, although whenever I do read them I’m reminded that it isn’t actually the case. I think a read a couple of bad thrillers a few years ago, which possibly prejudiced me a bit; or I confuse my dislike of horror with a dislike of thrillers too.

But I actually really liked The Girl on the Train.

It’s such a gripping and intriguing book. I read it all in one day, practically in one sitting, because I was so desperate to find out what exactly was going on. The structure helps this: the book is told in first person present tense (mostly; it does shift a little), by three different female narrators: Rachel, Megan and Anna. So we get Rachel and Anna’s perspective on the present, while Megan narrates the months leading up to her disappearance. The complex plot keeps you guessing throughout. I was full of theories as to what had happened to Megan and what was going on. These theories changed page by page, and I suppose that’s one of the things I really loved about this book – Hawkins is constantly moving the goal posts, making you rethink your expectations; much like Rachel, the moment you think you know what’s going on, you discover that don’t. Even now it’s still stuck in my head, and for some reason even though I’ve finished the book I keep coming up with conspiracy theories about else might have happened.

The Girl on the Train is well-written throughout; I didn’t stumble over a single phrase or sentence. Moreover, some of the characters that Hawkins creates are truly fascinating. I was a little less convinced by Tom and Scott, but Rachel and Megan I found really engaging. Rachel’s at times unstable condition, her alcoholism, her memory loss, her obsession with what she sees from the train – all this makes for an interesting personality through which to watch the story unfold. With Megan too, you get a sense of her inner turmoil and the general claustrophobia of her life right from the start, which is very effective. I like how her character unfolds in the past as we witness what’s happening after her disappearance in the present. I think Megan is possibly my favourite character – although I also rather like Cathy, Rachel’s flatmate who is so utterly nice it simply infuriates Rachel.

For me the one character I thought really let Hawkins down was Anna. We see her first from Rachel’s perspective, for quite a long time, and I was fully expecting Rachel’s observations on Anna to be inaccurate, biased, naturally prejudiced – but then, when Anna does get her own voice, she seems exactly as selfish as Rachel portrays her. I was expecting to see some softer, more human side to Anna, and we never really do. And maybe that’s just who Anna is – that’s fine – but reading the book I got the impression that even when it was Anna’s narration, we were still seeing Anna through Rachel’s eyes; that we weren’t reading Anna’s thoughts but what Rachel would imagine Anna to be thinking. I feel that Hawkins was completely on Rachel’s side, not on Anna’s – and I sort of think that as an author you need to be on all your characters’ sides in one way or another, even if you don’t approve of how they act.

Now, let’s come to the ending, which is one of the key things that seems to divide people on this book. I myself remain undecided. Endings are always tricky in psychological thrillers, or in any kind of mystery – I felt similarly undecided with the ending of Elizabeth is Missing. The author has to both surprise and convince you with the resolution; they have to give you clues, but not so many that you guess; they have to prevent you from working out what’s really happened, while making you think that you could have and should have seen the truth earlier on. With The Girl on the Train, I absolutely was surprised, but I can’t say that I was thoroughly convinced. I have a feeling that the reason I keep coming up with conspiracy theories is because I’m trying to think of an ending that might have worked better. The ending is exciting, gripping, clever, unexpected – certainly I can’t deny that – but I’m not sure I entirely believed it.

However, saying that, I did really enjoy The Girl on the Train. I defy anyone not to tear through it, simply because the writing, the plot and the structure are so well done. The suspense and build up is brilliant, and the characters very intriguing. I definitely recommend this book, and I’ll be looking out for what Paula Hawkins does next.

Greatest strength: Probably just how engaging and gripping the writing and plot are. As I said, I read it a day. Always a good sign.

Greatest weakness: For me, the narrative voice of Anna just didn’t ring true and nor, quite, did the ending.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘I can’t help it, I catch sight of these discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe, and the feet that fitted into them.’

Next week: will be a guest review by Chris King, of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids

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  1. Well, first of all, congrats on reaching your first year! That's great!
    I actually reviewed this book a couple months ago! If you would like to check out my review of this book it is over at
    Nice blog!

    1. Thanks Alisha :) . I enjoyed your review - I see that The Girl on the Train may have got you started on thrillers too!

  2. I must recommend reading The Girl on the Train: A Novel.
    I finished reading it today, and I think its a really interesting book.

    I got mine off Amazon and they delivered it in only 2 days.
    Here is a link for the book on Amazon:
    The Girl on the Train: A Novel