THE novel The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins broke records by remaining on the hardback bestseller list for more than a year, and there is a Hollywood film looming, starring Emily Blunt as the drunken voyeur heroine, Rachel Watson. The phenomenal success of the book has lessons for us on many levels: as a thriller, as a psychological whodunnit, and as an analysis of modern psychosis.
Rachel is a woman in her early thirties, who is destroyed by a failed marriage to Tom, who is not what he seems. She turns to alcohol as a prop, which, in its turn, gets her sacked from her job, although she still pretends that she is going to work by taking the commuter train each morning — hence the title.
She is not a “girl” in any sense of the word; but, as Hawkins herself says, “It was a working title that never got changed. . . I thought she should be ‘the woman on the train’, but it never sounded as good . . . so I just went along with it. But I won’t do that again. Rachel isn’t a girl.”
So commercial reasons prevailed. There are so many recent bestsellers with “girl” in the title: Stig Larsens’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ten years ago; then The Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier, in 1999; and Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, which is still on the lists of best-selling paperbacks. There is also Eimear McBride’s 2014 prize-winning novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and so it goes on. It is as if the word “girl” has a resonance of its own, even though it is not how we would talk about women of the age that the heroines are.
Although the main theme of the novel is failed relationships, it is also a thriller: one of the leading characters is a murderer. The story is told through the eyes of three women: Rachel, Megan, and Anna, and focuses on their relationships with Tom, the man whom two of them, Rachel and then Anna, marry, and whom Megan takes as a lover.
All three women are unreliable witnesses in varying degrees, and Rachel, the central character, has the added disadvantage of being an alcoholic. Tom is now married to Anna, with whom he has a child, but he has also been having an affair with Megan, who is married to someone else. Both Anna and Megan live in the street that Rachel once lived in, which backs on to a railway line.
The train that Rachel takes each day passes the end of their back gardens, giving her a passing view of their lives. This emphasises one important theme in the book: people believing that the image projected by the person, or the scene, is what it seems; with the corollary that people project one image, but the truth about them is very different.
Tom exemplifies both: he is good-looking, persuasive, and good company, but a compulsive and manipulative liar, as the three women each slowly realise. The charmingly convincing image that he projects is not real on any level. He is a fantasist who is capable of murder.
The diary-like sections of the action, as seen by Tom’s three women, are all dated during the summer months of 2013, except for a short section in 2012. Their mobile phones are crucial to the lives of all the characters, and the place of the internet and its social websites is also central to the plot.
The characters are all addicted to their devices, and the novel itself has the same addictive quality: although we suspect that the characters are unreliable witnesses, we still swallow their reactions and angles on events. The image projected by the person becomes the reality. Given the modern world’s growing dependence on such devices, and the ever-increasing spread of the social websites that they access, it is no wonder that the novel has been such a success: it rings bells at many levels with modern readers.
Hawkins’s book, however, also depicts the profound isolation of each character’s life, despite this seeming connectivity: no one ever really knows anyone properly. Tom turns out to be a fraud, but his surface charm has successfully masked his true character. The themes of isolation, control, narcissism, voyeurism and its dangers are central to the novel.
I think it is the busy emptiness of the characters’ lives, powerfully described in the episodic diary form chosen by Hawkins, that makes it a good book for a discussion group. There is so much lacking in their lives: truthful relationships, space, or search for the spiritual. As Hawkins herself says of her heroine: “She’s let herself spin out of control, but many of us walk a bit close to that line without crossing it.”
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is published by Black Swan at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-552-77977-7.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN — SOME QUESTIONS
- Are anyone’s motives pure in The Girl on the Train?
- What did you make of the shifts between the three narrators? Did you find yourself sympathising or empathising with Rachel, Anna, or Megan?
- What does The Girl on the Train have to say about women and their place in the world?
- “I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected”: how involved did you feel in this story?
- Do you feel that this novel has given you a greater understanding of alcoholism or abusive relationships? Would it be a useful pastoral tool?
- Trains are crucial to the plot of Paula Hawkins’s story, but what wider significance are they given?
- What lessons does The Girl on the Train have for Christians?
- Caught between anonymous commuters and monstrous spouses, what does The Girl on the Train say about modern friendship and community?
- Has this book changed the way you see the world and its interconnecting stories?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 2 September, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Awesome Journey by David Adam. It is published by SPCK at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-281-07294-1.
“For pilgrimage to be real,” David Adam writes, “it has to be a moving experience in more than simply a physical sense.” The Awesome Journey encourages us to ponder how we make our way through life, drawing on biblical examples to show how our relationship with God moves us from the unknown to knowing, and from emptiness to fulfilment. The tenderness, profundity, and poetry of David Adam’s book is accompanied by spiritual exercises, at the end of each chapter, which inspire prayerful reflection on our own progress as pilgrims.
Born in Alnwick in 1936, David Adam left school at 15, and spent three years as a coal-miner before training as a priest at Kelham. His ministry included more than 20 years as Vicar of Danby with Castleton and Commondale, in North Yorkshire; and, latterly, 13 years as Rector of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne before his retirement in 2003. Beginning with the best-selling The Edge of Glory, in 1985, his collections of prayers written in the Celtic tradition have found a wide audience, and he has written many other books of reflections, meditations, liturgies, and spiritual biographies of the Celtic saints. He lives in Northumberland, where he continues his work as a writer and spiritual director.
Books for the next two months:
October: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
November: The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope