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Monday, August 17, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)


Official Author Website
Order The Girl On A Train HERE
Read The Girl on the Train: how Paula Hawkins wrote ‘the new Gone Girl’
Read Entertainment Weekly interview with Paula Hawkins by Clark Collis 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: While this may be the first novel by Paula Hawkins, it is not the first novel that Paula Hawkins wrote, or published. She got work writing chick-lit under the name Amy Silver, an experience that she says was great training. Hawkins, born and raised in Zimbabwe, was 17 when her family moved to London. She had wanted to be a foreign correspondent like her father, but decided that war zones were just too scary.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I read this one out of curiosity. Aware that it had been a huge market success, I wondered if it merited the sales. According to Riverhead, The Girl on the Train is, or was, the fastest-selling adult hardcover fiction debut ever. And that is a shame. With so many great books being published every year that do little or no business, for this one to have secured a first class ticket on the book-sales express can only be dispiriting to the good and great writers everywhere toiling away in third class on the oft-delayed local.

I do not mean to say that The Girl On The Train is a bad book. Although I believe it to be seriously flawed, it is most definitely entertaining and will no doubt help hundreds of thousands of readers while away a few hours of their (our) lives, getting from this station to that. But if you want a psychological thriller that doesn’t disregard red signals you would do better to book a seat elsewhere.

(Paula Hawkins picture by Kate Neil)

Rachel Watson has had a tough go of it. When her hopes of having a baby with hubby Tom did not work out, she landed in a trough of post-hope depression, and self-medicated with a steady flow of what seemed happier spirits. It did not work out. Now, divorced and unemployed as a result of her drinking, growing larger and pastier by the day, Rachel rides the commuter train to London on weekday mornings, pretending she is still working, pretending she still has a life. The ride takes her past her old neighborhood, offering a nice, mood dampening view of a stretch of railroad-edge homes. She used to live in one of those, before her ex bought out her interest. A few places away from her former home there is a couple she sees most days. She imagines lives for them, nursing this fantasy for quite some time, until she learns that the woman has vanished, and the game is afoot.

The notion for the story occurred to Hawkins on her regular train ride in London some years back. She calls it “Rear-Window-ish,” noting that it is hardly unusual for train riders to be curious about the lives being lived in the houses they pass, and just as likely for those on the ground to wonder about those passing by.

"I used to go to college on the District line,” she said. “It goes very, very slowly and you can look into people’s houses. I did idly wonder about what you would do if you saw an act of violence or something suspicious. It’s quite normal, everyone is curious about other people’s lives.” – from an article in the Standard

This irregular Watson will not make anyone forget the investigative Doctor, let alone his illustrious partner, but Rachel feels compelled to find out whatever she can, using the knowledge she has gleaned from her daily observations. We expect our investigators these days to be a bit down on their luck, and to throw back maybe more than their share of amber liquid. But Rachel Watson doesn’t have a drinking problem, she has a drinking catastrophe. How is she to figure out whither the missing lady has gone, or perhaps who made her go missing, how is she to judge whether the lady’s anger-management-challenged husband, the other man she saw at her place, or someone else might be somehow involved, if her drinking causes her to have more blackouts than London during the blitz.

The tale is told in staggered chronology, from three perspectives. Rachel’s, the missing person’s, and Anna’s, she being the woman with whom Rachel’s ex cheated while he was still with Rachel, and whom he subsequently married. Or she said, she said, and then she said. The timelines converge at the end. Most sections are divided into sub headings of morning, evening, afternoon, that sort. It makes for many short passages, good, appropriately, for reading on a train.

(This is an example of the S stock used on the District line Hawkins once rode)

The pace of the tale is quick, clickety-clacking along without exceeding posted limits, advancing nicely to the big climax. Truthfulness comes in for some attention, as it seems everyone has something to hide. If you are looking for likeable characters, you might try the Hogwarts Express. The folks here tote enough baggage to merit their own cars. I suppose Rachel is sympathetic, but seems almost as much an agent of her misery as a victim. Making her pathetic and annoying was, I expect, a way to make her real, make her sympathetic, and that works, to a point.

Will Rachel find out what happened with the missing woman? Will her ex take out an order of protection against her, as she keeps calling and showing up at his place? Is the missing person merely missing? or worse? Can Rachel stay sober long enough to figure anything out? You might very well care. Clearly, judging by sales, many do. But, while I did, a little, I felt pushed away by this book. I felt cheated, as an actual audience member, as if riding on a disoriented express. I do understand that the unreliable narrator is simply a story-telling mechanism and that Rachel falls into the Madman classification within that, but when she changes her story about a significant piece of information the story went off the rails for me.

CONCLUSION: So, while there is plenty to enjoy about The Girl on the Train, while there is plenty of tension-release-repeat, and while many readers are bound to be transported by the story, relating to or rooting for one or more characters at least some of the time, the one thing a reader demands from an author is honesty, and when trust is lost so is the benefit of the several hours we spend together. The locomotive was transformed, for me, into a hand-car trapped in a siding. It’s elementary.

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will's blog.

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