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Book Review: 'The Girl On The Train' by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins’ 2015 bestseller The Girl On The Train instantly attracted rave reviews, even being compared to Gillian Flynn’s hugely successful psychological thriller, Gone Girl. Certainly, both novels rely on unreliable narration, keeping the reader only partly informed as events unfold and ensuring we are kept guessing until the very end. Written in first person, the novel is alternately narrated by Rachel, Anna and Megan; each character’s account is skewed to her own perceptions, and the three women’s relationships intertwine and overlap as their lives unravel.

Primary protagonist Rachel is an alcoholic struggling to cope with the breakdown of her marriage; the drinking has also cost Rachel her job and any purpose to her existence. Focal to her distress is the knowledge that ex-husband Tom is now happily remarried to his former mistress, Anna. Each day Rachel takes a torturous glimpse into their lives from her fake daily commute as the train stops at a signal overlooking a row of houses – including her former home, which Tom now shares with Anna and their baby daughter. Although Anna revels in her role as victor in Tom’s affections, she struggles with living in the house he once shared with Rachel. This is not helped by Rachel drunkenly harassing them as she fails to move on. Anna’s lack of remorse over being the other woman perhaps makes her the least likeable of all three characters. We wonder how far Anna will go to protect the picture perfect family she is so proud of.

As well as looking in on a life that should have been hers, Rachel entertains herself by watching another couple who reside in another of the houses. She nicknames them ‘Jess and Jason’, imagining their perfect lives and perfect relationship. Rachel takes comfort from believing such perfection is still possible, as she reels from the devastation of losing everything. Lodging in a small room of the flat belonging to an old university friend, Rachel has lost control of her life and enjoys her puppet-master power over ‘Jess and Jason’, giving them personalities, careers and lives beyond the decking of their garden. In reality, ‘Jess and Jason’ are Megan and Scott, whose lives are far from perfect. Still running from a troubled past, Megan’s life has also reached a crux. Unable to truly forgive herself for former events, Megan has a self destructive streak and a tendency towards actions which support her negative self beliefs. In an effort to deal with her issues, Megan begins to see a therapist, which only initiates further problems. As things come to a head, Megan finally decides to take control – with tragic consequences.

The Girl on the Train explores our fascination with other people’s lives; Rachel watching ‘Jess and Jason’ through the window of a train is reminiscent of Jefferies looking through the camera lens in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. For both characters, what they see puts them firmly in the action of another’s life, no longer anonymous and unaccountable. A self-confessed ‘unreliable witness’, Rachel’s alcoholic black-outs leave huge gaps in her memories, making her mistrustful of herself. Given only the clues that she herself remembers, Rachel’s narration provides huge scope of possibilities for misinterpretation. Hawkins cleverly uses each woman’s flaws to weave a tangled web of intrigue in which nobody seems innocent. As the pieces of the jigsaw slot into place, the story brings into stark question how much we ever really know about someone else’s life, even if it is intertwined with our own. The Girl on the Train is a compelling read with a series of unpredictable and chilling twists until the final page.

Written by Keri Wilson

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