07 August 2016
The Girl on the Train
by Leigh Lundin
In a matter of weeks, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train comes to a theatre near you. The novel comprises a compendium of sorts, a compilation of first person accounts by three women. It is, you might correctly infer, an offshoot of chicklit and contains enough internal dialogue to fill two Dr. Phil shows and most of an Oprah season. It’s most definitely not intended or promoted as a manbook.
But, for a guy fascinated by women, this one enjoyed it.
From time to time, I’ve had to make an unlikeable character likeable, but Paula Hawkins has honed that technique to a science. She accomplishes this through the devices mentioned above: internal thoughts and first person narrative.
The author nails showing-not-telling. She doesn’t tell the reader a character is an alcoholic, she lets you see it. But she takes the show-not-tell to another level of abstraction when the main character, Rachel, looks in on lives from a distance, making guesses and assumptions that naturally might or might not be true.
Even if the characters aren’t immediately likeable, we feel varying degrees of sympathy for most, especially the landlady, Cathy, who gets short shrift. We quietly urge Rachel to get her act together and groan at her many slips. The author could have titled the novel Train Wreck and been right on the mark.
I haven’t thought of Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden since required reading in high school, but a few unreliable brain cells brought that novel to mind. Maybe the only comparison is of a troubled young woman and her inner battle, but perhaps distant memory is suggesting something more. Probably it’s the battle with alcoholism and this book is a veritable textbook on the subject. More than most writings on the topic, the reader will feel empathy in the ‘there but for the grace of God’ moments.
The Girl on the Train has been compared with another popular novel, Gone Girl, but except for the word ‘girl’ in the title and the disappearance of one, I don’t see much similarity. I found Gone Girl more unputdownable, but only for a matter of degree and for different reasons. TGOTT isn’t a thriller like Gone Girl; it’s more gothic and personal. I closed the book reluctantly each evening, wondering how Rachel would get out of the mess she found herself in.
Off the Rails
Railways run as a motif throughout the novel; literally the last word in the book is ‘train’. Cleverly or at least amusingly, Amtrak has been offering on-line excerpts through on-board wifi for passengers travelling through America.
The story uses the device of an unreliable narrator, in this case a woman who suffers from alcoholic blackouts. She may have seen something, but if she did, she can’t remember. The author also employs misdirection; one part in particular navigates a minefield of tricky pronouns. The plot strays from that of a traditional mystery; the protagonist has to figure out what’s in her head and the reader must merely observe rather than solve.
The American MPAA rates the upcoming film R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity, most which appear in minute fragments in the novel if at all. Producers sadly decided to stage the story in New York instead of the UK, so anything’s possible.
One last point: Despite the small measure of action in the novel, the third paragraph from the end is one of the most chilling in fiction.
Read it and creep.