Monday, 27 July 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

“My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day I am offered a view into other lives; just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.”

There have been a slew of bestsellers lately with each plot more twisted and grotesque than the last. I guess you can call it the Gone Girl affect; I am sure there is no one reading this review that has not read the book or watched the movie, no one who does not know of the surprise twist. That’s another popular plot design lately, the surprise devastating plot twist. Not that I am complaining – I love being completely taken aback by an author. Being able to surprise a reader, especially an avid reader is a pretty impressive feat. It’s not just about adding something from out of the blue, it needs to make sense with the plot, its needs to tie in nicely without being too obvious or too out of left field, it needs to be believed, it needs to not be predictable. It needs to be done right, and when it is the effects can be devastating. The problem, of course, is that the more twisted books that are published, the more people are going to anticipate a big twist, thus decreasing the effects. Especially with the success of Gone Girl, every twisty book nowadays is using it as a comparison, and knowing a twist is coming takes away half the fun.

It’s funny, as I am writing this I am looking over my copy of The Girl on the Train I see no actual comparisons to Gone Girl, but I know that I have heard it from everyone I know who has read this book. And it’s not hard to see it – although I think that I am finding Paula Hawkins’ book more subtle but somehow more intense?? I know that doesn’t make any sense… In Hawkins’ story, the eponymous girl on the train is Rachel Watson, a depressed, overweight alcoholic who takes the train into London and back again every day. The train always stops at the same place and Rachel has become slightly obsessed with the couple who lives in the closest house. She has named them (Jess and Jason) and made up lives for them, trying to forget her own life by imagining the happiness in theirs.  “I can’t really see her of course. I don’t know if she paints, or whether Jason has a great laugh, or whether Jess has beautiful cheekbones. I can’t see her bone structure from here and I’ve never heard Jason’s voice… They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me, five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.” One day Rachel witnesses something that she shouldn’t and the next day Jess, whose real name is Megan, disappears. The story is told in alternating diary entries from Rachel and Megan, and sometimes Anna, Megan’s neighbour and Rachel’s ex-husbands new wife. None of them can be trusted. Rachel tells the story of her failed marriage and descent into alcoholism, Megan tells of her weaknesses and demons and Anna provides a too cheery account of her perfect life. All three women are connected and I am pretty sure that all three are liars.

As Rachel embroils herself further and further into Megan’s disappearance it’s harder and harder to know what is really happening and who or what you can believe. I don’t want to spend too much time comparing this to Gone Girl – but just to explain my earlier statement – you don’t know that anyone is lying in Gone Girl, so you’re taking everything at face value for the first half of the book. Here, you know everyone is cracked, so it puts you more on guard. You know no one can be trusted… but it hard to tell what’s real and what’s not and it’s impossible to figure out what has really happened!  I’m still waiting for a twist, but I think the genius of Hawkins is that even knowing what you do, you don’t really know anything. Any twist that comes still has the potential to shock and awe. ( I am not going to lie, I am kind of hoping that there is no twist… that maybe Rachel can be trusted – I think that would end up being a bigger shock than anything!)

The thing is, I find there is something (faintly) sickeningly satisfying reading about completely messed up people. Reading about someone more messed up than me, watching their slow descent, knowing that they are probably lying to you… I think it might be messed up that I like it as much as I do. But it’s like a train wreck. I can’t look away and I need to know what’s happening. I want Rachel to redeem herself,  I want her sadness to be true because it gives her more humanity. But as she says herself ‘There have been many slips, on many staircases’ so she’s never sure what one she may be lying about at any given time, and if she doesn’t know… how are we to?

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