There is nothing quite as exciting as “people watching” – the good old voyeuristic streak that so many of us secretly possess, that has us watching others from afar, and then imposing some sort of narrative, or evaluation about them in our own head. A fairly innocent pastime – at least until something goes wrong. And for the ardent people-watcher – as we have all learned from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” – there will always come a time when “curiosity kills the cat”.
This, is the premise of Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train – a psychological thriller which is so adept at re-working this well-worn formula that it is hard to believe that this is Hawkins’ first crime thriller, and in fact her first ever novel.
The Girl on the Train introduces us to Rachel, who commutes to London every day and watches the familiar scenes outside her carriage window. She knows that every day the train will slow down and sometimes stop at a familiar bend, just before Witney station, and that here, among a row of houses she will see the home of a couple she has named Jess and Jason. Jess and Jason have it all: they are young, beautiful, and – by all outward appearances – very much in love. To Rachel they live a perfect and enchanted life – a life that is very much in contrast to her own life. And while Rachel at first seems like an ordinary commuter, it soon becomes apparent that there is a whole range of reasons that Rachel needs to construct a fairy tale life for Jess and Jason, as Rachel’s life is the complete antithesis to this fairy tale.
When Rachel one day sees something unexpected out her train window, something that shocks her to the core, she decides that it is time to get off the train and get involved for real in Jess and Jason’s life – a decision that changes everything for her, and which brings up the aspects of her past that she fears most.
The Girl on the Train is told in first person narrative by Rachel, as well as the other two main female characters, Megan and Anna – all three characters are stunningly constructed by Hawkins, who has a fine eye for conveying the subtleties of how underlying and suppressed secrets shape character and experiences, and how this impacts on the reliability of the narrator. All three women contribute something to the overall puzzle that forms the crux of the novel, but to the reader it is uncertain whose perspective is the “right” one.
The plot is driven along by these voices and the gaps that exist within each of the women’s narratives – such as Rachel’s memory lapses (blackouts from drinking), Megan’s deliberate obfuscation, or Anna’s inability to accept reality – and it is the uncertainty of truths and memory that drives this compelling and completely spellbinding plot, and which will have the reader hooked.
Alongside the themes of secrets and memory the novel also explores relationships – for Rachel it is the post-mortem of a terribly failed relationship, from which she is still unable to recover; for Megan and Anna it is the relationships they are currently in, and the confrontation of reality versus idealised romance.
Hawkins is a first-rate new writer, and The Girl on the Train has already earned international praise and is being compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, as the next big “must-read thriller”. Similar to Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train has already sold the movie rights, so it will be just a matter of time until this new story hits the big screen – but this is one novel you will most definitely want to read before that happens.