The Girl on the Train

By Paula Hawkins
The Penguin Group, ISBN: 9780698185395
Paperback, ©2015, 416 pages

Rachel’s teetering on the edge. Alcoholism and bitterness over her failed marriage nudges her closer every day to total loss of what little she has left. Her only bright spot is the daily commute to London where her train stops at a faulty signal. From there, she can see the back of her old marital home and, several doors down, the house of strangers she’s dubbed “Jess and Jason,” whose lives Rachel has imagined as a dreamy ideal, everything she wanted and everything she lost. But after witnessing a shocking encounter there, Rachel is yanked into the darkness of an alcoholic fugue, a lost night, and a frightening mystery that sends her spiraling into the lives of strangers whose beautiful facades are not at all what they seem.

The three main characters—Rachel, Megan and Anna—reveal themselves in layers. The further I read, the more I understood them. The more real they seemed. Each is flawed, as are we all. Yet theirs are basic human needs and emotions to which we can all relate. While I cringed every time Rachel reached for a gin and tonic or a bottle of wine, I sympathized with her pain. I cheered for her when she tried to stop, and felt disappointed when she slipped. And I strained with her to remember what happened that fateful Saturday night. Megan and Anna, too, struggle with demons and secrets that compel them to act in detestable ways, yet I felt compassion for their fear and grief and loss.

Hawkins incorporates, with brilliant results, the fallibility of memory and makes good use of the unreliable narrator in this gripping tale. No one is who they appear to be, and when one of the characters goes missing, everyone else seems guilty. As a writer who is always learning to improve my craft, I was awed by this author’s ability to thread suspense into the narrative, slowly at first, then twisting it harder as I got deeper into the mystery. This is no simple murder mystery. Each of the characters’ stories has its own revelation, some more than one, and even though I correctly guessed who committed the act by two thirds of the way through (if not sooner), there remained plenty of surprises I never saw coming.

The train is an apt metaphor for Hawkin’s thriller, since the murder at its heart careens through the predictable lives of its characters and shoves them all off the rails in a tangle of lies, suspicion and fear. Every incident in the story is connected, as are the cars on the commuter line. Rachel’s life, already unstable, hurtles out of control like a speeding train. Even her blackouts fit the simile, especially the single image of hovering beneath the railway overpass with dirt under her nails, blood on her hands and a cut on her head, and no clear memory of what any of it means.

I sat up half the night reading because I couldn’t put this book down. I’d like to be able to point out the weak spots in the story, but honestly I was so caught up in its thrill that I failed to notice any. It would be a real accomplishment for any writer, but Girl on the Train is a debut novel. If this is any indication of what is to come, I’ll be watching for future releases from Paula Hawkins. An excellent read.