The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Rachel is the girl, or rather woman, on the train. Every weekday morning she catches the 8.04 slow train from Ashbury to Euston. As the train stops at a signal, about halfway through the journey, Rachel looks for her ‘favourite trackside house: number fifteen’.

I know that on warm summer evenings, the occupants of this house, Jason and Jess, sometimes climb out of the large sash window to sit on the makeshift terrace on top of the kitchen-extension roof. They are a perfect, golden couple. He is dark haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blonde hair cropped short. She has the bone structure to carry that kind of thing off, sharp cheekbones dappled with a sprinkling of freckles, a fine jaw.

Rachel tells herself stories about what the couple might be up to when she passes their house, stories that might have been her and Tom if things had turned out differently. A page later, we’re told that Rachel doesn’t want to see house number twenty-three as that’s the one she used to live at.

In the evenings, Rachel takes the 17.56 train home, on it she begins to drink. When Rachel drinks heavily, she rings Tom, leaving him messages.

One morning in July as Rachel takes the train into London, the train stops at the signal and she sees something different:

I can see Jess in her garden, and behind her a man walking out of the house. He’s carrying something – a mug of coffee, perhaps – and I look at him and realize that it isn’t Jason. This man is taller, slender, darker. He’s a family friend; he’s her brother or Jason’s brother. He bends down, placing the mugs on the metal table on their patio. He’s a cousin from Australia, staying for a couple of weeks; he’s Jason’s oldest friend, best man at their wedding. Jess walks towards him, she puts her hands around his waist and she kisses him, long and deep. The train moves.

Rachel’s shocked and it reminds her of discovering that Tom was cheating on her. We discover shortly afterwards that the woman Tom cheated on Rachel with is now his wife and they have a baby. It’s his current wife, Anna, who rings Rachel and leaves her a message, telling her that she can’t keep ringing the house. There follows one hell of a line:

I want to ring Anna up and remind her that Assia ended up with her head in the oven, just like Sylvia did.

The action really kicks off though when, completely hammered, Rachel decides to take the train one Saturday evening and then gets off at Witney, the place where the couple she calls Jess and Jason and her ex-husband, Tom, new wife, Anna, and baby, Evie, live. She wakes the following morning with little knowledge of the previous evening. She’s covered in bruises and there’s a message on her phone from Tom berating her for frightening Anna and having him driving around looking for her. Rachel vaguely mentions an incident on the stairs at Witney station but nothing else. By Monday, things have become a whole lot darker when the press report the disappearance of a woman, Megan Hipwell, from Witney on the Saturday night. Megan is the woman Rachel calls Jess.

Megan’s our second narrator (we also hear from Anna but not until much later in the novel), but she narrates events beginning a year before her disappearance. Her story’s about her relationship with Scott (the man Rachel calls Jason); the work she does briefly for Tom and Anna, and her sessions with her therapist, Kamal Abdic.

There’s much I enjoyed about this novel – the plotting’s tight and twisty and I wanted to keep reading, revelling in being misled. Although I realised who the culprit was two-thirds of the way in, it was interesting to see the incident unfold and the ending took an unexpected turn or two also.

However, having recently embarked on a PhD for which I’m using feminist cultural theory to analyse texts, I can’t help applying it to everything I read and watch and this is where The Girl on the Train came unstuck for me. It’s difficult to have a full discussion of this without spoilers but as a general overview, there are three reasons for this: the first is that all three central women – Rachel, Megan and Anna – are only really discussed through their relationships to men and motherhood; the second, that the characters are all vile. Now, regular readers will know I love an unlikeable character or three but it was the way these women talked about each other that put me off, and thirdly, there’s a idea in feminist theory that the patriarchy allows women some space to ‘act out’, this mostly relates to ideas of hysteria. The reason the patriarchy allows this is because it merely reinforces women as inferior beings and strengthens the patriarchy’s hold. This idea is the most complex of the three with regards to the novel as there is a reason given in the plot that would allow for an argument against this and I would concede that, to a point. However, the ending complicates this further.

I think the most interesting thing about this novel for me is that there’s so much discussion to be had about the female characters. I’ve already had quite a lengthy chat about it with Elena who blogs at Books and Reviews and disagrees with me. It’s worth reading her review also for balance and I’d love to chat more when others have read it too.

 

Thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

0 thoughts on “The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

  1. Thank you for the link, Naomi 😀

    For me, The Girl On The Train was very much a story of patriarchal abuse and how patriarchy tells women to fight each other on a everyday basis. Rachel’s marriage – and her opinion about it and motherhood – led to her alcoholism, and Anna’s view on motherhood is completely rose-tinted until it’s too late for her. I do see that for women like us, who have a feminist education, Rachel’s and Anna’s problems could have been easily avoided. But I’m 25 and I hear some of my female peers articulate these patriarchal ideas and assume it’s the only way things work for women, because that’s it, and they make it sound like a fact. So, for me, this novel explored the ways in which these conventionalisms can damage women’s health and identities, and how it’s the women who are held responsible for their failures. I also loved how Rachel eventually shows the readers that her mind was colonised by the patriarchy, because despite what everyone thought – even herself, because self-blame and guilt were a very important part of the narrative – her divorce was not her fault.

    However, I agree with your review, because I also know women whose only space to act out, even nowadays, even when they’re young, it’s ‘hysterics’. One I know, had to end up on the ER to take a tranquilizer because she had had a coffee… Why and how she has had her brain ‘wired up’ to work like this, and act like this, well, it’s the (black) magic of patriarchy.

    • Elena, I’m so pleased you’ve commented. I agree with your comments about patriarchal abuse and the way women are told to fight each other completely and yes, I know women who believe these things, regardless of their age (and sometimes education too). Anna’s a really interesting character, I think, because she goes so quickly from being ‘the other woman’ to wife and mother and then gains status in some areas and loses it in others. It’s more difficult to discuss Rachel without spoilers but I don’t think she does completely accept that her mind was colonised by the patriarchy, I think she has a glimpse of that but if she really understood it, there would have been a different outcome for her.

      And yes, acting out is completely a patriarchal creation, thanks for that Freud, and Hawkins uses it well here. I think the reason I’m most torn on the book is because it reflects what we see in society but only questions it briefly, all the women are punished in some way that will have a longer legacy than the consequences (most of) the men suffer.

      • Again, I agree with you. But seeing Rachel slightly recover and just glimpse that maybe there’s another way to do things, that’s enough for a start. I know it may sound like I’m a comformist, but you know how my professors were, and after 5 years of hearing most of my female classmates still didn’t even glimpse that as a woman you can and you should question the status quo. Going from believing such things are facts to the idea that maybe they are not was enough for me, because I know many women who just lead the lives they’re told. As for the psychoanalysis, well, it’s sad, but the idea of the ‘hysterical’ woman is still believed by so many I cannot but work with it and subvert it. I know many feminists who don’t, and that’s fine, obviously, I’m in no fight to make psychoanalysis worthy.

        Now, the above is with what I’m a little bit satisfied about in real life. I have other expectations for fiction, but what can you expect of an Atwood and Atkinson fan? However, this is Hawkins’ debut, and I see ‘the seed of discontent’ there and I can only but hope for more openly subversive and questioning works. The book also has an excellent campaign, and I’ve interviewed Hawkins (out tomorrow) and I can tell you, there’s hope.

        That’s me. Always hopeful things will change!

        • All really interesting points, thanks Elena. You know, I didn’t study feminism at university as an undergraduate or masters student – it’s been a recent thing academically, I read things myself at undergrad (Germaine Greer, for example) and they explained why I’d always been so bloody angry! I recognise that lack of questioning though and more so people who get it in some instances and not in others – perhaps that’s why I’m so frustrated with Rachel!

          I’m really looking forward to your interview now. Paula Hawkins tweeted me earlier and linked to the review, she was very nice about it, which says a lot. I was nervous about it as we’ve followed each other for a while and it’s hard to be critical knowing the author might read what you’ve written but if it starts a discussion like this one – regardless of whether people agree with my stance on it or not – that can only be a good thing, I think. Looking at it from a writer’s point of view, feedback’s always interesting but you don’t have to pay any attention to it if you disagree and that’s okay too. I’ll still be keen to read her next book for all the reasons I gave for enjoying it in the review.

          • It’s so interesting that women like you and me needed feminism to articulate our anger and frustration with the world, yet there are others out there like my classmates who had the knowledge and the tools at their feet and they didn’t pick them up. It astonishes me, but we can’t do nothing. Anyway, we can be angry, frustrated AND articulate together. Yay for us!

            And so sweet of Paula to tweet the review! I think if a writer is mature enough, she’ll take some healthy, complex and constructive criticism on a serious and feminist blog. It’s not like you’re ranting on Tumblr with capital letters and GIFs all over the place, Naomi 😉

  2. I really enjoyed this book but despite that I understand your comments, however, that is how lots of women define themselves, rightly or wrongly and I could quite believe these three defined themselves.

    • Thanks Cleo. Yes, I agree with you. Elena and I had a similar conversation at the top of the comments. I think the fact I feel so strongly about it shows that I regard these characters as if they were real women.

  3. Reminds me of a couple books in translation particularly the infatuations which also starts with a similar idea a women imagining about a couple she sees every day in the cafe

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  5. Looks like another great read on my TBR list. Because of wonderful people like you it’s looking like the energizer rabbit – going and going and going! ;)Thanks for the link.

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