Thursday, July 07, 2022

the last book I read

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.

So there's this girl, Rachel. And she's on a train. I mean, not all the time, just twice a day as part of her commute. It's a suburban branch line connecting with one of the main London termini and the trains trundle along in a fairly leisurely way, calling at all the intermediate stations and occasionally stopping at signals. One of the regular stopping points happens to be round the back of a row of suburban houses whose back gardens slope gently towards the line so that passengers (Rachel included) can see in. 

Rachel amuses herself by imagining some back-story for the couple who she occasionally sees sitting on their back terrace and who she calls Jason and Jess. So far so normal, just a bit of harmless fun, right? Well strap yourselves in as we throw the points lever, pass a signal at danger, kick over the drinks trolley and make a screeching diversion to Unreliable Narrator Central, with an intervening stop at Shady Ulterior Motive Parkway. It quickly becomes apparent that Rachel is something of a Hot Mess - not only is she an alcoholic given to necking a couple of bottles of warm Chenin Blanc for breakfast, but her inappropriate drunken antics have resulted in her losing her job and only keeping up the charade of commuting to London and back to conceal the fact of her sacking from her friend Cathy, from whom she is renting a room. 

There's more, though: it further transpires that Rachel used to live in the house a couple of doors down from the one Jason and Jess live in, with her now-ex-husband Tom. Their marriage ended as a result of Rachel's escalating drinking, their failure to have children, and eventually Tom's infidelity with Anna, the woman who is now his wife and who lives with him and their baby Evie in the house. So Rachel's interest in Jason and Jess is not just innocent idle daydreaming, and only intensifies when she sees Jess in the garden kissing a man who is not Jason, and shortly afterwards reads of Jess's disappearance in a newspaper. Only it turns out she isn't called Jess, of course, she's called Megan, and her husband (and inevitable prime suspect in her disappearance) is called Scott.

Rachel is troubled by these developments. She's got a few troubles closer to home to worry about as well, though, like the night she went to Blenheim Road (where Megan, Scott, Tom and Anna live) and then woke up, bloodied and bruised, in her bed the following morning with almost no recollection of what had gone on in between except vaguely frightening memories of shouting and violence. Furthermore when Cathy returns to a flat liberally festooned with piss and sick she's not best pleased and threatens to throw Rachel out if she doesn't get a grip on her drinking. 

Rachel decides that she needs to tell Scott about her sighting of Megan and the other man in the garden. But how to do it? Obviously going there in person is a Really Bad Idea, partly because Scott might actually be a murderer, but also because it would involve going past the front of Tom and Anna's house, and Rachel has a bit of previous for acts of drunken harassment and has been warned off going near them on pain of getting the police involved. But the magical effects of a couple of cans of ready-made gin and tonic make it seem like a really great idea, so off she goes. 

The mystery man turns out to be Megan's therapist, Dr Kamal Abdic, who promptly gets hauled in by the police for questioning, but then released again for lack of evidence. It now transpires that Megan was pregnant at the time she died, but that neither Scott nor Kamal was the father. In order to solve the deepening mystery Rachel realises that in addition to sobering up occasionally she's going to have to remember what happened on her lost night, how she sustained her injuries, and what she saw. The gradual recovery of this information leads her to re-assess certain moments from her past life which she assumed she'd misremembered in a drunken haze, and realise she'd been gaslit by someone she'd previously trusted and who may be harbouring some secrets relevant to Megan's disappearance.

The narrative actually presented in the book isn't quite as linear as that, as it intersperses the main first-person viewpoint (Rachel's) with Megan's (mainly in flashback from a year or so before the main series of events) and Anna's. Megan in particular has some interesting back-story including the accidental death of her baby daughter some years earlier. Anna's sections provide a bit of context for some of Rachel's weird drunken stalky behaviour, but don't add a lot else until right at the end when they become highly relevant. I mean, I don't want to reveal all the details, and maybe I'm just an idiot, but I can tell you that I only had the big OOOOOHHH RIIIIGHT moment wherein I clocked what the answer was going to be on page 298 of a 409-page book, which is not bad going for a novel with a fairly limited number of major characters (and therefore suspects).

As always the key consideration with a novel of this type is: did it keep me wanting to know what happened next? And the answer is: yes, very much so, as can be gauged by my zipping though it in less than a week. Rachel is an alternately endearing and infuriating central character and the alcoholic's cycles of WAHEEEEYY I'M ON THE SAUCE EVERYTHING'S BRILLIANT followed by OHHHH FUCK WHAT HAVE I DONE are pretty well rendered. The mystery is resolved without Rachel having to turn into some booze-crazed Wallander/Rebus flawed detecting genius either.

Lots of points of similarity with other similar works in the same genre, as you can imagine, for instance the business with Megan's baby daughter has a touch of the Barbara Vine about it - long-buried past crime for which the only punishment the perpetrator received was years of internal guilt and torment. Seeing something fleetingly from a train and then having to piece together the fragments to reveal a crime is a trope that's been used quite a few times in the crime genre, notably in Agatha Christie's 4:50 From Paddington, a book I once started and then never finished, as described here. The crime-related thriller/female author/slightly unreliable female narrator/publishing mega-sales sensation thing is oddly reminiscent of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, published a year or two earlier, although its narrator (and I should add that I've never read it) seems to be a proper psychopath rather than a drunk. Like Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train was made into a major film which relocates the action from Oxfordshire to suburban New York, although the character of Rachel (played by Emily Blunt) remains English.

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