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.