I have just finished reading The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. It is the first "thriller" she has written, although she has written several books under the name Amy Silver. It is a contemporary novel, taking place in England and with a timeline of several months.
The novel is a bit hard to follow at times, because of its shifting perspective. It begins in July 2013, from the point of view of Rachel Watson, a divorcee who is struggling with alcoholism. Rachel narrates in the present tense, but often changes to the past tense to relate prior incidents in her life: something that happened last night, last week, or several years ago when she was still married. While Rachel is the main character, we also see events from the eyes of two other women, Anna and Megan. Anna is the current wife of Tom, Rachel's ex-husband; Megan is an artist who is married to a man named Scott.
Still, the novel flows very well. Rachel exists in a cloudy world of depression and rejection, living with her friend Cathy and trying to forget her marriage with Tom. Unemployed, barren, and unable to remember episodes of her life when she was too drunk to form memories properly, Rachel takes the train to and from London every day in order to keep up the pretense that she is still working, so that Cathy does not kick her out. From the window of the train, she often sees Tom and Anna living happily in their home, in Witney; wanting to distract herself, Rachel begins to watch another married couple every day from the train, whom she simply calls "Jason and Jess." Then one day a woman named Megan goes missing, and Rachel recognizes the picture in the paper as that of "Jess," the woman Rachel kept noticing from the train.
What follows is a tense murder mystery in which the detective is not really a detective at all. Rachel is unreliable, she does not trust her own judgment (and no one else trusts it, either). She knows that she was around the neighborhood in Witney where Megan lived, on the night that Megan went missing, because Rachel went to see Tom and Anna in one of her drunken half-conscious episodes, and so Rachel believes that she might have been involved in whatever happened to Megan. It is a mystery, and Rachel must negotiate her own foggy memories at the very scene of the crime as she struggles to solve the crime. Her motive is to clear her own name, and perhaps a morbid fascination with Megan - to see whether her "Jess" was able to keep up a healthy marriage with her husband "Jason," or if this woman was unfaithful to her husband, just as Tom had been unfaithful to Rachel.
The novel seamlessly blends together many different themes, such as reality versus perception, family, guilt, deception, and a person's alienation from society. Much of the novel takes place on the commuter train, where Rachel watches the world through a window. She loves being on the train, it is her only escape from the two places that do not want her: the apartment in Ashbury where Cathy is reluctantly supporting her, and the office in London where Rachel showed up drunk and lost her job. The train represents a sort of limbo for her, a drug (much like her drinking) that enables her to forget that her life has plunged downhill.
The Girl on the Train is an exceedingly well-written suspense novel that made me feel physically ill. At times Hawkins describes Rachel's train of thought as she tries to remember the previous night's scenes of mayhem, and I feel as though I am pushing through thick clouds of smoke that obscure half of my own thoughts, leaving only trace impressions of guilt and confusion as my sole knowledge of what I have done. The entire novel resembles a nightmare, and, sadly, it loses its effect when the nightmare comes to an end. Like Lehane's Mystic River, this novel winds up with an explanation for its crime that is simply not very interesting in itself. It derives its power from the turmoil created by Rachel's amnesia and the lies that the characters tell each other; once the truth is revealed, I am left wondering if there is anything to be learned from this whole ordeal. Also like Mystic River, the novel is bitterly pessimistic, with hardly a likeable character except perhaps a psychiatrist whose personality and role in the story are underdeveloped.
I could not help but notice this novel, since it was on the NYT bestseller list for months. The novel obviously takes place in England; yet, there is really is very little sense of setting (in that way it resembles Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which also begins with a scene on a train). I think it could take place just about anywhere with little loss of clarity, and perhaps that is part of the novel's wide appeal.
The movie is scheduled to be released in October 2016, directed by Tate Taylor (who directed "The Help"). I expect it will be a success.