This could be the year of the domestic noir thriller. After the amazing success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, both book and film, there was bound to be a reaction in the publishing industry. There is nothing truly new in the world of commercial fiction and there was inevitably going to be a scramble to find the next great tale of poisonous relationships.
Enter Paula Hawkins, journalist turned author, and her first novel The Girl on the Train. Her book is already top of the New York Times bestsellers chart and is on its 10th re-printing. As if that isn’t enough, the book rights have been sold to 33 countries and has already been optioned by Dreamworks.
Like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train also has an unreliable female narrator – in fact, it has three. The most prominent of these being Rachel, a miserable alcoholic who spends the majority of her days commuting to London. Rachel rides the same commuter train into London every day and when we meet her on a return journey, she has four cans of pre-mixed gin and tonic in her bag.
“I take another sip, and another; the can’s already half empty but it’s OK, I have three more in the plastic bag at my feet. It’s Friday, so I don’t have to feel guilty about drinking on the train.”
It isn’t long before we get a sense that this is a woman with serious problems. Like many of us who commute on a daily basis, from her train seat she looks into the same home which backs on to the railway line, each day. Unlike most of us, however, Rachel creates a fantasy world for the couple who live in the house – dubbing them “Jess” and “Jason”. Our second viewpoint comes from Megan, the real-life woman who lives in the house – she, of course, isn’t as perfect as Rachel imagines and has a terrible secret of her own.
The story gathers pace when Megan goes missing from her house and Rachel believes she has information that could help her husband Scott and the police in their enquiries. She was there the Saturday night Megan went missing, but being an alcoholic, with a habit of blacking out, she isn’t the most reliable witness and struggles with her own memory. The plot thickens even more when we discover Megan’s house is on the same street where Rachel used to live with her ex-husband Tom, who still lives there with the woman he left her for (Anna the third narrator) and their baby.
It’s difficult to say too much more about the plot of The Girl on the Train; like all thrillers, it’s best for readers to dive in spoiler-free. Alternating points of view can be tricky but Hawkins uses the technique very well, giving away just enough in each chapter to keep us on our toes. The tension builds steadily as we nibble away at Rachel’s muddled memories. The best thing about this novel, as about any good thriller, is that we are drip-fed subtle revelations about each character. Hawkins has a real talent for revealing inconsequential details that suddenly take on huge importance and give us a piece of the puzzle.
Sometimes I think authors get carried away with these thrillers, spending too much time picturing what they would look like on the big screen. However, when I say Hawkins’ writing is cinematic, I mean it as a compliment.
One negative thing I could say about the book is that I solved the puzzle a little bit before the big reveal and I felt the climax didn’t deliver the same satisfaction that some better books in the genre can give you. Is it the new Gone Girl? No. Gillian Flynn’s prose is on another level, in my opinion, and Hawkins’ characters fall a little flat. They are bland compared to the ones we have met in the likes of Gone Girl or Sharp Objects but it is great debut, a timely one and an enjoyable read. I would recommend it to fans of the genre.
By Donal Lucey