Scared to get off the train

PAULA HAWKINS – The Girl On The Train

“… It’s because I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected. I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose.”

It’s the everyday girl at it again, taking your sympathy, well-meaning thoughts and constant cheerleading from the sidelines, and stealing them before jumping onto the moving train.

Yes it’s the everyday girl, but the ever day girl in crisis and beaten and battered by life, is what works in fiction, stories, LIFE.

I’ve been noticing this a lot lately, and maybe it’s because I happen to be reading books like this more often right now, or maybe it is too prevalent… I don’t know. I know it works, but it has made me more aware of my own representation of women in my works.

It works. Don’t get me wrong, it does. And as much as it appears overused to the brim, this concept still has you turning page after page.

I was made curious already by the end of chapter 1.

Hawkins does well to keep you interested in her thriller. The tone of the book starts out cheery and with some hint of positive promise, and as we are exposed to each day of this fairly ordinary girl, and her journey on the train every day, we start to gain glimpses of darkness, of sadness, and of desperation.

It is a slow reveal, much like the old-fashioned train brakes squeal slow slow slowly to a screeching halt, deafening you with their metal-scraping sound at their destination.

She is an ordinary girl yes, but her life is messed up in more ways than she can count, and as reader, you sway quickly between thinking of her as pathetic, to feeling really sorry for her. It’s a fine line.

An early insight of her darkness comes in the first chapter:

“Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.”

Such a true observation. I love it much more when I come across a passage in a book that rings so true to me, to life.

And with this early intrigue into our poor protagonist Rachel’s life, we learn many things, all of which make this a fantastic thriller.

She is an alcoholic. Centring a thriller around the inconclusive and unreliable memories of a drunk is a GREAT start.

She has an ex that left her for another woman, and they live in her old house. Ouch.

And she has been privy to a love story unfolding from her seat in the train, about the supposedly ideal couple that lives doors down from her old place… but then after witnessing something that shatters that love story, something happens.

All the characters are, or become, intertwined with each other in this story, and this becomes apparent both as the story progresses, but as different characters points of view come into view per chapter, with the first differing view being from her arch nemesis, the woman who took her ex away.

Oooh! Juicy.

I found this an interesting tactic, and a foretelling one, as it’s risky to have the point of view of your protagonist’s enemy expressed in a book. Naturally when you put someone’s point of view in a book they organically become more understood and less hated by the reader. Even killers have been known to have their motives understood in this way. So to have someone so apparently selfish and self-obsessed, have her views and opinions expressed and validated and EVEN understood, is a huge deal. It is an important one too.

It is a book about clues. There are clues throughout as to ‘who did it,’ who people really are, and what their real intentions are too, but of course these clues are so well imbedded, that as I was trying to read into every detail, these clues just became extra details. The clues not only reveal things well in advance, but their mention spikes interest and keeps the story moving forward.

There are hints of adultery, hints of cheating, and hints that things are not always as they appear, clearly a prevailing factor of the story. What Rachel sees while on the train, is not necessarily as rosy and perfect as it is in real life. This is further supported by the differing points of view that we get, as we are suddenly privy to another character’s actual thoughts and real everyday life, something far removed from Rachel’s perception of them. The fact also, that Rachel cannot remember what happens after she gets drunk, is further testimony – how can you trust your own head, thoughts, memories, when they are based on substance abuse? She is as clueless as we are as readers.

As for Rachel as protagonist… sure we like her. A bit. We root for her because sadly, she is quite pathetic. Her drinking and lying get her in trouble time and time again, and sympathy reigns supreme as she pines for the life she used to have, the life she lost. We root for her, because we want her to get it together, but then we also want her to solve the mystery and prove to everyone that she isn’t incompetent! Unfortunately, she treats small victories like she deserves a reward, and those rewards come in the form of a drink. So the cycle is ugly and seemingly never-ending. If anything, that on its own serves as a warning – do not drink: it can mess up your head and you will fail to solve a mystery!

The scary element comes in not knowing what has transpired in the time that she was inebriated… she often can’t remember anything. She’ll have a message or email as memory, but will have no recollection of it. This isn’t just frightening for Rachel, but as reader you have to wonder: if she can’t remember what has just happened in the last 8 hours, there is the very real possibility that she did something horrible while drinking and now also can’t remember it?

The book gives us realistic representations of life, not just in the sad honesty that is alcoholism – she is constantly on and off it, and sometimes only stays sober as she wants to stay involved and know what has happened – but there are the media references too. Things like facebook, email, even X Factor make an appearance. These social media references stand out so starkly, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a book like this would be received let’s say 50 years down the track… would it still make sense? But then again we still read Austen today and we don’t care how out of date that world is!

“…the part of me that can’t resist a bit of drama is actually quite disappointed.”

Although this is stated by Rachel, you will feel anything but in this page-turning thriller. The number of times I changed my mind on who I thought was guilty was overwhelming, and I had a number of wild theories about who did it, only to be proven wrong time and time again. Rachel is drawn to the scene of the crime like a moth to a flame, and the risk of getting burnt is almost guaranteed. But it is drama to her dull life, and she can’t help herself from going back, time and time again.

The biggest message from the novel could be this: someone else’s life could look ideal when you take a glimpse from within a moving train… but when we look a little closer, we can hear the harsh words spoken. Bear witness to the constant arguing. The holes in the walls… the un-slept beds.

Ultimately this is the story of people, how they change, how they are perceived differently from one person to another, and how we can never really truly know someone… anyone. And it stays true to the theme ‘the grass is not always greener on the other side,’ or should I say,

“life is not always smoother once you’re off the train’s tracks.”

Please let me know your thoughts on The Girl on the Train in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 😊

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