The eternal dilemma of reviewing a thriller.
How to tell the reader something meaningful about the story without spoiling things? How to praise a book sufficiently without revealing the plot?
Because if ever there is a smashing read, it’s “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins, a brilliantly crafted book about what someone might (or might not) have seen, in a quick glimpse, from a suburban train. This is just a fleeting moment, but one that will have ramifications that ripple outwards throughout the course of this dark, gripping story.
Rachel, an unhappy divorcee and a woman battling alcoholism, takes the 8.04 slow train to Euston every morning and from the opening page of the book, we are drawn straight into the world of stuffy trains and the dreary commute to London day after remorseless day:
“The train jolts and scrapes and screeches back into motion…and we trundle on towards London, moving at a brisk jogger’s pace. Someone in the seat behind me gives a sigh of helpless irritation…”
Every day, as the 8.04 makes its slow way to Euston, Rachel looks out at the houses she passes :
“The train crawls along; it judders past…modest Victorian houses, their backs turned squarely to the tracks. 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.”
It is something Rachel sees, just for a moment, that draws this troubled woman into the lives of the people she passes. People she doesn’t know in real life, but around whom she has constructed a fantasy life. Every morning, Rachel looks out for Jason & Jess – she is sure they must have names like this – a couple she is fond of, from afar. They seem to her to have the perfect life that she has lost. Divorced from Tom, largely because of her alcoholism, she treasures her glimpses of what she imagines is the perfect marriage of the perfect couple – dark handsome Jason and tiny blonde Jess. Who just happen to have moved into the same street where she used to live with Tom.
And that is all I am going to say about the plot, because otherwise I might inadvertently spoil this great read.
Ms Hawkins tells the story from the point of view of 3 protagonists, a device which could get wearisome, but which she handles with consummate skill, taking us backwards and forwards in the narrative, and giving us tiny snippets of information that gradually build up to a clearer picture of the crime that is at the centre of this novel…at which point, the story takes another twist. We see the same event from different perspectives, and a detail that we might have overlooked suddenly assumes importance. There are subtle shifts in the story right until the very last page of this brilliantly constructed thriller.
We are told, by Rachel herself and by everyone she meets, that she is a drunk and that her memory is unreliable, and we know that she often blacks out through over-drinking, so, yes, she undoubtedly is an unreliable witness. She candidly admits to us that she does indeed imagine things – such as naming complete strangers Jason and Jess – almost encouraging us not to believe her, so when she suddenly remembers something, or has a partial flashback, we can hardly blame the police for mistrusting her. At times, we are not even sure whether or not we should believe her, either. We want to, but should we?
It is this clever play of imagination and half-remembered moments, of flashbacks of terrifying violence, of fears and doubts that make this such a gripping story.
What passes as the ultimate suburban lifestyle – the commute, the young couple drinking wine in their narrow garden that goes down to the train tracks – all of this turns slowly into a narrative of hidden secrets and violence.
A fabulous read.
I hesitate to use a stock-in-trade expression like “couldn’t put this book down” but actually, why not? This book is unputdownable.