The Girl on the Train
By Paula Hawkins
— Review by James Alexander —
The hype surrounding The Girl on the Train, especially given the upcoming film adaptation, may want you to believe it is the next Gone Girl. It’s not. It’s nowhere near as sensational or propulsive as that. This is a drama set at a much lower key, which makes up for its melodrama by taking things in a darker, more personal direction.
Its unusually pathetic protagonist, Rachel, is a drunk, wallowing in self-pity following her divorce and incapable of making healthy life choices — in one chapter she tries to justify sneaking into her ex-husband’s house and walking outside with his child. She has nothing better to do than insert herself into the investigation of her ex-husband’s missing nanny, who she believes she saw on the night of her disappearance, only she was too drunk to remember the details, and mysterious injuries she herself sustained that night may or may not hint that something else is going on.
The mystery itself isn’t that interesting. Our heroine isn’t capable of making deductions, only going to increasingly extreme lengths to recover her memory and get information out from people she’s constantly outwitted by.
Savvy readers should be able to pick out the red herrings early. What stands out about the story is what the situations brings out in its characters, and what the narrative has to say about depression, gaslighting, and the stress of public scrutiny and infidelity.
The lead character’s need for closure is so toxic and self-destructive I found myself rooting for her to give up. When the perspective shifts to the nanny (Megan) and Rachel’s ex-husband’s mistress-turned-new wife we are given a sympathetic portrait of “the other woman” many stories would shy away from for the sake of simpler moral lines. The tension of the final moments isn’t hurt by their relative predictability. It may be unintentional. But part of the book’s thesis is that these characters have deluded themselves out of discovering the truth earlier.
The narrative is split into three perspectives, which the audiobook hands off to three different readers. Clare Corbett and Louise Brealey embody their characters more naturally than India Fisher who feels a bit “presented” which takes away some of the immersion in her scenes. The story needed her to come off as more exasperated than stagey. She’s the clear weakest link in a set of performances which otherwise elevate the narrative.
James Alexander lives in Durham.