The Girl on the Train
Riverhead Books 2015
I avoided this book for a long time. The fact that it was a #1 bestseller was part of the reason and the fact that so many commentaries likened the plot to something by Gillian Flynn made me wonder if this book were merely another popular variation on the ‘unreliable narrator’ theme. I’d already done a review of Gone Girl and was loathe to invest time in what might turn out to be a variation on that theme. But the book showed amazing staying power in its sales and I saw a copy at the airport for 50% off so I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did.
The main narrator and unlikely heroine of the story is Rachel. She’s a mess. She’s a self-pitying, raging alcoholic who drunk-dials her ex-husband, suffers from blackouts and whose half-drunken fantasies, wishful daydreams and shattered memory lead to all sorts of misunderstandings and erroneous conclusions.
Then there’s “Jess”, whom Rachel sees each day from the train she commutes on, and who seems, in sharp contrast to Rachel’s own life, to have an ideal marriage with “Jason”. We also get “Jess’s” story up until she disappears suddenly.
Then, there’s the commentary from Anna, new wife of Rachel’s ex, who also happens to be a neighbour of “Jess”.
All three narrators are unreliable for different reasons and with different purposes, but there are no sneaky tricks being played, no deus ex machina at the end to prop up the plot. It’s as much an examination of the limits of human knowledge given how easy it is to misunderstand, jump to conclusions or ignore the obvious as it is a tightly plotted thriller.
It’s a dark book. It’s a book where sympathetic characters are rare and sometimes not-that-sympathetic. Even the ‘nice’ person in the book, Rachel’s roommate/landlady is described: “Cathy’s a nice person in a forceful sort of way. She makes you notice her niceness. Her niceness is writ large, it is her defining quality and she needs it acknowledged often, daily almost, which can be tiring.” And making drunken Rachel the centre of the book was a brave and, ultimately, successful move. As I said above, she’s a mess: unreliable, self-absorbed and endlessly letting herself and others down. She’s let herself go and observes that men now seem to find her distasteful. She’s deeply lonely but makes no meaningful attempt to change. A not untypical alcoholic. In fact, the depiction of Rachel’s alcoholism made me wonder if the author has or had a drinking problem. Turns out that she doesn’t, but the descriptions of Rachel’s alcoholic troubles are so utterly convincing that I felt I had to see if the author was writing from her own experience. That, too, may be a reason why some people have had difficulty staying with the book. One friend didn’t get past the first twenty pages, declaring the book “too dark”. And yes, it’s dark and there are some unlikable people in the story, but it’s a very good read that leads to a very satisfying conclusion.