There’s nothing new under the sun – or in the world of big-selling commercial fiction – but Paula Hawkins has come up with an ingenious slant on the currently fashionable amnesia thriller. The latest bestselling example is Emma Healey’s Costa-winning debut Elizabeth Is Missing, featuring an elderly woman with dementia. The protagonist of The Girl on the Train is much younger, yet she is unable to remember much about the night a young woman went missing near her old home – blood, an underpass, a blue dress and a man with red hair keep jumbling in her mind.
The narrative is skilfully split between three women whose lives interlink tragically: Rachel, Megan and Anna. We first encounter Rachel on the commute home from London, just another tired worker on her way back to the suburbs – except that she has four cans of pre-mixed gin and tonic in her bag, and that’s only for starters. “It’s Friday, so I don’t have to feel guilty about drinking on the train. TGIF. The fun starts here.”
The journey takes Rachel along the backs of houses on the street where she used to live. Unable to look at number 23, her old home, where ex-husband Tom now lives with new wife Anna, she focuses instead on number 15. She has become obsessed with the beautiful young couple living there, whom she names Jess and Jason. Rachel looks out for the pair every day, daydreaming about their perfect lives. Until one day she sees something that startles her in their garden, and when she reads in the paper that “Jess” – who is really called Megan – has vanished, she decides to tip off the police. She is convinced that “Jason”, now the prime suspect – and really called Scott – would never harm his beloved wife.
But Rachel is prone to blackouts, irrationality, and drunk dialing, and the police dismiss her as a rubbernecker. She has also been persecuting Tom and Anna, bombarding them with offensive messages. It is a bold move to create such a flawed female lead; the alcoholic lifestyle with its miserable excuses, urine-soaked underwear, and vomit on the stairs is outlined in all its bleak, cyclic predictability.
Rachel is not just weak, occasionally spiteful, and self-pitying, but also overweight and relatively unattractive; a sad sack compared with vibrant Megan and glossy, sexy Anna, who glories in her victory over her predecessor. Yet as Hawkins demonstrates, apparently fixed identities and fortunes have their foundation on shifting sands. The more Rachel discovers about the missing Megan, the less she likes her. In a clear echo of Gone Girl (the success of which is presumably why this novel does not bear the more accurate title The Woman on the Train), Scott, the apparently grieving husband, is likewise more slippery than his charming manner indicates. Anna, too, comes to seem less like an innocent victim and more like a vindictive troublemaker. Tom is a nice guy driven to distraction by his batty ex-wife, but is there something disquieting lurking beneath his calm surface?
Hawkins juggles perspectives and timescales with great skill, and considerable suspense builds up along with empathy for an unusual central character who does not immediately grab the reader. “Ingenious” twists usually violate psychological plausibility, as in Gone Girl. Hawkins’s Girl is a less flashy, but altogether more solid creation.