What is wrong with me at the moment? Paula Hawkins’ thriller, The Girl on the Train, is the most buzzy book around at the moment, and a cursory check of the reviews in the national papers indicates that everyone loves it. Everyone that is, but me. So if you loved Gone Girl, or if you enjoy contemporary thrillers about women in peril, then I suggest you click onto another blog post immediately. Move along, now, nothing to see. Because I am most definitely in the minority, and it may perhaps be best if we carry on under the assumption that I must be missing the point.
The novel is a reworking of a fine rear window principle. Rachel commutes to Euston on the train every day, and has a particular fondness for one signalling light at which the train usually stops. From her vantage point, she can see Blenheim Road in Witney, where a married couple have arrested her fantasies. She calls them ‘Jason’ and ‘Jess’, and imagines their happy life together: ‘They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me, five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.’ For Rachel is in freefall, her marriage over after her failure to get pregnant drove her to drinking too much, unemployed after turning up drunk in the office, and living out an alcohol-drenched shell of her old existence in the hope of fooling her friend, Cathy, whose flat she awkwardly shares. And then she catches sight of ‘Jess’ in the garden kissing a man who isn’t her husband, and she has the first inkling that all might not be well in paradise.
Blenheim Road is dangerous territory for Rachel to fantasize about because it’s the road on which she used to live, and where her ex, Tom, still lives with his new wife, Anna and their little daughter. Rachel cannot let go of her past and obsesses over their new life together. She’s been ringing up and leaving notes and Anna is already furious with her. When Rachel wakes one morning with a terrible hangover and a head wound, she has scarcely any memory of what has happened to her; but she knows it involved Blenheim Road and she knows it was bad.
Then a glimpse at the newspapers on the daily commute shocks her deeply; ‘Jess’ or in real life, Megan Hipwell, has gone missing, and it isn’t long before the search becomes a murder hunt with her husband firmly in the frame. Thinking she owes it to Scott Hipwell to tell him about the other man she saw in the garden with Megan, Rachel starts to become entangled in the investigation, though her drinking makes her an unreliable witness and her general emotional messiness leaves her a walking target for disaster.
Although Rachel’s perspective dominates the stream of consciousness narration, it changes hands between her and Megan – those entries dated earlier, so we are approaching her fate from a long run-up. Megan is a wild child playing at domesticity; despite her current stability and the therapist she’s seeing, she can’t help sleeping around. Megan’s narrative is as incomplete as Rachel’s, because she doesn’t want to come right out and say what she’s doing. Two unreliable narrators clocked up so far, and to this mix we add Anna, who gradually slips into the merry-go-round of voices, initially as the smug married, but whose happiness is undermined by what she believes is Rachel’s stalking. Then we add the men – tempestuous husband Scott, object of everyone’s desire, Tom, and the sexy therapist, Kamal – and we readers are all set to play Guess the Psychopath. Because that’s what got everyone so thrilled in Gone Girl, right? The idea that soured love really does drive people crazy.
As a set-up it has intriguing possibilities. But in its execution it just isn’t terribly… interesting. Not a lot happens, really. It’s mostly plot at the level of wild speculation. But to be honest what bothered me most about the novel was the writing. To be fair, the style is one that is very popular at the moment: the female equivalent of the Lee Child thriller – short telegraphic sentences, lots of repetition for effect, a first-person spoken narrative in the impossible present. The register is mournful female, self-berating, steeped in emotion, lost and alone but quick to action, a little bewildered but oh so determined. I don’t find it life-enhancing.
My major gripe, though, is about the interchangeability of the female characters. There was nothing to differentiate them as far as voice went. And in terms of character traits, there was so much similarity. They are obsessives and masochists:
‘I lived at number twenty-three Blenheim Road for five years…That was my first home. Not my parents’ place, not a flatshare with other students, my first home. I can’t bear to look at it. Well, I can, I do, I want to, I don’t want to, I try not to. Every day I tell myself not to look, and every day I look. I can’t help myself, even though there is nothing to see ther, even though anything I do see will hurt me.’ (Rachel)
‘If he thinks I’m going to sit around crying over him, he’s got another thing [sic] coming. I can live without him, I can do without him just fine – but I don’t like to lose. It’s not like me. None of this is like me. I don’t get rejected. I’m the one who walks away. I’m driving myself insane, I can’t help it. I can’t stop going back to that afternoon at the hotel and going over and over what he said, the way he made me feel.’ (Megan)
When it comes to relationships, they use sex as a weapon of power:
‘We shouldn’t, we ought not to, but we will. It won’t be the last time. He won’t say no to me. I was thinking about it on the way home, and that’s the thing I like most about it, having power over someone. That’s the intoxicating thing.’ (Megan)
‘Being the other woman is a huge turn-on, there’s no point denying it: you’re the one he can’t help but betray his wife for, even though he loves her. That’s just how irresistible you are.’ (Anna)
Scratch the surface and you will find violent rage ready to well up:
‘I don’t have words to describe what I felt that day, but now, sitting on the train, I am furious, nails digging into my palms, tears stinging my eyes. I feel a flash of intense anger… If I saw that woman now, if I saw Jess, I would spit in her face. I would scratch her eyes out.’ (Rachel)
‘”I could lose my job,” he said, and then I really lost my temper. I pulled away, angry, violently. He tried to hold me, but he couldn’t. I was yelling at him, telling him I didn’t give a shit about his job. He was trying to quieten me… I kissed him on the mouth, I bit his lower lip as hard as I could; I could taste his blood in my mouth. He pushed me away.’ (Megan)
Perhaps this is an unfair exercise and in any book you could find moments of similarity like these. Or maybe this is what women are really like and I’m in denial about it? Or maybe it’s possible to see that the otherwise implausible ending could be explained by the women in the book all being of one type. Maybe Tolstoy needs tweaking and whilst happy women have different stories, all damaged, unhappy women are the same?
Anyway, the ending is pure Hollywood, and like all the other crazy relationship endings you’ve ever watched in films or read in books (Fatal Attraction providing the ur-story). When the book was done I took nothing away from it whatsoever. Obviously loads of other people like this sort of thing and I am out of step. But I’ve recently read the second in Eva Dolan’s brilliant new crime series that focuses on the problems surrounding immigration, and Charles Cummings’ latest spy thriller that is such a compelling, clever narrative, and they are both extremely well-written and about so much more than warring spouses. Why isn’t there all sorts of buzz around those books, rather than around an ordinary story told in an indifferent style?