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Some have suggested that the title of this debut by Paul Hawkins came about from a desire to associate it with the best-selling GONE GIRL. Both books use the unreliable narrator device. In this case, there are three of them, one unreliable because of what she cannot remember, another because of what she refuses to remember, and the third because of what she cannot admit.
However the title was chosen, it is certainly true that we do not have a girl but a woman on the train, Rachel Watson, thirty-three years old, whose life is a train wreck. She is also one of the three women who narrate what took place on Blenheim Road in a suburb north of London over a two-month period in the summer of 2013.
Rachel is a paradigm of an unreliable narrator. Divorced from her husband, sunk in a pit of depression, convinced of her worthlessness, she has moved from serious drinker to alcoholic who knocks back a number of canned gin and tonics on the train followed at home by two bottles of cheap white wine every evening. Her drinking and her misery both contribute to her serious lapses of memory - she has frequent blackouts from which she can only retrieve scraps of recollections, some of which may be true, others only nightmare. Although she is a daily commuter on the 8:04 out of Ashbury, she is unemployed. She was fired when she became abusive following a far too liquid lunch. Now she is maintaining the fiction that she still has a job so that the woman in whose flat she has a room will not evict her.
In her own account, what has brought her so low is the failure of her marriage as a result of her not coping with her inability to conceive, even after undergoing in vitro fertilization. As she sees it, "...let's be honest: women are still only really valued for two things - their looks and their role as mothers. I'm not beautiful, and I can't have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless." So she sits in the railway carriage and fantasizes about a couple she sees from the train every morning in their back garden, a pair she has named Jess and Jason, who she imagines are living the kind of lovely life promised several decades ago in the pages of women's magazines
But Jess is really Megan, another narrator, who goes missing shortly after the book opens in July, but who begins her story the previous March. (It's worthwhile paying attention to the dates that appear at the head of each narrative.) She is married to Scott and far from carefree. She loves her husband, but he no longer seems enough to fill the gaping holes in her life that she is seeking therapy to address. As a narrator, she is more reliable than Rachel, but she has secrets that she is determined not to reveal.
The third narrator is Anna, now married to Rachel's ex. She and Tom were carrying on an affair while he was still married to Rachel. Now the couple and their little girl are living in the house Tom and Rachel formerly shared. The only blot on her happiness, says Anna, is Rachel, given to drunken phone calls. Otherwise, "it's perfect, it's the way it should be. Just the three of us." But occasionally, she does need some time out from perfection and has employed Megan as a child minder.
These three women are connected with one another in ways that appear both obvious and, in time, as the tension winds tighter, profoundly shocking. On the surface they appear different from one another, but the more that is revealed about each of them, the more it becomes clear that they share a particular and traditional definition of complete womanhood, one that demands a perfect husband and at least one child. They express their desire in the idiom of the 21st century, but it is an old, old, ideal. Here, it is one that carries a mortal threat.
Readers may be put off by the opening chapters of the book. Rachel, the primary narrator, is a mess by any definition, and being confined within her consciousness is painful. Still, Hawkins carries it off with amazing aplomb for a debut and by the end, we are firmly on Rachel's side, willing her to survive. Though it has been frequently compared with GONE GIRL, this is a different book. There's more meat on this girl's bones and the challenge it presents to the reader is one that may strike closer to home.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2015
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