Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Girl on the Train must have had a pretty decent marketing campaign because, having no real idea about the book itself, I found myself really keen to read it. I’m sure I’ve seen a fuckload of instagram posts of girls on the train reading Girl on the Train. As someone who has always believed themselves to be above the psychological tactics of advertising, it made me fucking sad that it seemingly worked so easily. I don’t even have a good track record with this type of novel. Regular readers will no doubt get bored by my continued disappointment with Gone Girl: I’ll never finish it. Contemporary thrillers just don’t seem very good anymore. I’ve always managed to work out the big twist a few chapters in. So either writers of thrillers are running out of ideas or I’m just too cynical to believe anything set before me. Of course, if the latter is true I’ve opened up the potential to follow the steps of my heroes Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher and Dr Mark Sloane and become a retired crime fighter. If the crimes are anything like Paula Hawkins debut plot then I’ll have no trouble.

Girl on a Train is only a fraction more complicated than it’s title suggests: through her regular commute Rachel Watson becomes obsessed with the life she creates for a young couple living near her train route. Naming the beautiful pair Jess and Jason, Rachel revels in the seemingly perfect marriage she gets a glimpse into every single day. When Jess, whose real name, it turns out, is Megan, goes missing Rachel decides she has some vital information about the case and begins her own investigation.
Unfortunately, Rachel is not the respectable PR worker that she is pretending to be; she’s an alcoholic divorcee who is obsessed with her ex-husband, Tom, and his new wife. She’s fucking nuts and nobody seems incredibly concerned about this. Even when she informs the police that she’s been secretly watching the missing Megan for months everyone seems fine with it.
Am I the only one getting bored of the unreliably narrated domestic thriller? It’s becoming such a boring literary cliché and I think we need a change. Girl on the Trainis fucking Gone Girlwith a train. To be honest, it might be OK if the unreliability didn’t feel like something intended to drag the plot on for even longer. Yes, Rachel’s an alcoholic but it doesn’t feel like a problem: it’s never explored in full. Her loss of memory simply adds another unnecessary layer of mystery to one of the least mysterious whodunits ever written.
Yes, we’ve been here before with Gillian Flynn but I can’t deny that I was disappointed with Girl on the Trainbecause it was so fucking obvious who the killer was all the way through. Something that is actually only made clearer by the multiple-narrative structure (boy its great to see that people aren’t getting bored of that yet!). For, as well as Anna’s depressing and creepy narrative, we have Megan’s point-of-view of the year leading up to her disappearance and the paranoid moaning of Anna, Tom’s new wife.
It’s fair to say that these narrative strands are pretty fucking hit and miss. When it comes down to it, its difficult to understand why Megan’s own thoughts are so obviously misleading and vague. The Megan chapters are the least successful and only really work to highlight the final ‘twist’ ending. This type of narrative structure can and has been used effectively by many, many, many, many, many authors: Hawkins never quite gets the hang of it. Girl on the Train’s narration feels like a gimmick and is clearly just another way to link it to Gone Girl. Hawkins may as well have just named Flynn as co-writer on her debut novel and had done with it.
To be fair, though, Hawkins prose does work in her favour. Though it never reaches great heights, her plain and to the point narrative drives the story forward. Up until the last few chapters when I couldn’t ignore the fucking obvious secret any longer, I was driven on to continue reading. Hawkins was a journalist living in London before she released her first novel and her setting is wonderfully realised. Despite the absurdity of the narrative, the novel remains grounded and realistic in the portrait is paints of London life.

Girl on a Trainpromises great things during the first half of the novel but it something that it just can’t live up to. The identity of the killer is clearly signposted from early on and the hint of something deeper is replaced with melodrama and soap opera style reveals. There has been a lot of praise for complex literary characters of late and Girl on the Train has been lauded as another Gone Girlthanks to its complicated narrator. However, none of the female narrators that show us through this journey are particularly well-thought out or complex characters. The pseudo-psychology to describe the problem of women is just infuriating. “Oh, she fucks a lot of dudes because she’s sad.” “She drinks because she really wants a baby.” This is the laziest fucking approach to writing: basically, if in doubt, women have emotions and it causes them to do crazy shit. I think, rather than easy-to-read literature that makes people feel clever, we deserver some genuinely thought-provoking female narrators. 

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