4 October 2014

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train
Paula Hawkins
Transworld, 15/1/15
316 pages

I am grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.  It is though going to be tricky to review - much of the information is hinted at, inferred and only emerges after a degree of teasing.  There’s a lot of potential for spoilers.

If, like me, you commute by train I'm sure you will have gazed out of the carriage window into the back gardens of houses beside the line. Often, the track is raised up, and you can see right into the garden, or even the house.  Though people are protective of their privacy at the front, nobody seems to realise just how much you can see from the train - the weed choked gardens, of course, the neat gardens, those with trampolines and sandpits... the house with a pair of deck chairs on a flat roof, the bike stored on a fire escape, posters in the bedrooms… what Hawkins has done is to imagine how much you might see if you really looked, if you saw the people as well (which, to be honest, you generally don't at eight in the morning, as they're probably also on their way to work too).

That idea of peering into someone else’s life is very powerful. 

But of course lives seen like could be very deceptive.

Rachel travels into London every day, looking out of the window, observing the gardens, the couple she calls "Jason" and "Jess", weaving happy little daydreams about them.  We sense something a little strange about Rachel: but what it is, the book only reveals slowly. Likewise, only gradually do we learn why she is paying such close attention as the train passes that particular row of houses

Hawkins shows great delicacy and skill as she hints at Rachel's problems.  The focus is on the situation she's looking into, not on her.  But drawn into that situation she is: there are natural comparisons with Hitchcock, perhaps.  "Stranger on a train seeing what she takes to be evidence of a crime" is an obvious one, but there are others, too (spoilers!) as the book digs deeper into the relationships between the various couples who live beside the railway track.

I loved the way here that Hawkins makes it oh so plausible for Rachel to be trying to find out about what has happened.  She comes to believe she is involved, and that only by filling gaps in her own past (if there are gaps) will she solve the crime (if there was a crime) and only by solving the crime will she fill those gaps. So far, so logical, but Rachel is damaged, blundering, both a threat (so some) and, perhaps, herself in danger.  While she is not immediately sympathetic, Rachel is a complex and engaging character who wins over the reader, especially as it becomes clearer what has happened to her.  By the end I guarantee you'll be cheering on (though perhaps cringing at what she may do next).

It is an absorbing read, perhaps a little slow to get moving - but if you commute regularly you'll be used to sitting waiting.  It's all part of the journey, and can be put to good use. 

I once lived in a house by the railway, in a town an hour from London.  We could hear the station announcements from our back garden.  We could see the garden from the train, just for a moment.  I don't travel that way now but sometimes I take the train from Paddington and I spot that garden, wonder who lives there now, are they happy… perhaps I should take that train more often, and watch more closely, get to know them better...

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