My Twitter feed went crazy last summer when proof copies of Paula Hawkins’ debut novel The Girl on the Train were being distributed by the Transworld publicity department. I arrived a bit late, but luckily Alison Barrow put me on a waiting list and I was lucky enough to get a review copy of the second bunch they produced. As it usually happens, everyone was right. This is an extraordinary novel.
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
The Girl on The Train is not a classical psychological thriller, it is rather a very complex, modern and deep novel. Rachel, the main character, may be the most unlikable main character in 21st fiction since Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. She is the imagine of middle-class wife gone wrong. Historically, middle-class values have been constructed as pure and squeaky clean, and it was women who were responsible to perpetuate this image. However, things changed in the 20th century with feminism and women’s entrance into the working force and this image was no longer sustainable. Rachel has emotional troubles that have affected her entire mind and body, and the is also the embodiment of how society can destroy women who do not fit into middle-class respectability. Directly related to this construction is that of a motherhood that nullifies the woman’s identity previous to given birth. But I will not say a word more, because Hawkins explores this issue in-depth.
The crime itself is really good as well, because directly derived from middle-class respectability comes the value of truth. Can a woman outside the symbolic system of representation that is patriarchal middle class tell the truth? Or, let’s put it the other way round: Who does society tend to believe, a prostitute’s word or a middle-class wife and mother? I found it very interesting that Hawkins decided to explore the consequences of such a change. Because the idea of a fluid society with total mobility despite gender, race, education and social class is what democracy is supposed to be, but reality is quite different, especially if you are a woman. Identities are constructed in two directions: the one we want to show the world, and the one the world assigns us. The people Rachel see from the train, are they real? Or are they a projection of her own troubles and desires?
So, The Girl on The Train is one of the best novels that I have read in 2014, and probably the best debut novel of the year. I read it in three sittings because I could not put it down. Not only is the crime/mystery addictive, but Rachel’s struggles with her own identity could have very well sustained the novel.
The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins comes out on 15th January 2015. Don’t forget to pre-order it!
Also, stay tuned for a very special post at Books & Reviews.