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“The Girl on the Train” – no paint-by-numbers thriller


 She watches you. She watches almost every day. You don’t know her. But she knows you. Or at least, she does, in her head. 

Rachel Watson, an alcoholic takes the 8.04am overland train into London every day. Every day, for a few seconds, as the train stops at a signal, she peers into the home of a young husband and wife, Megan and Scott, observing their morning rituals. To Rachel, they are Jason and Jess, the perfect couple. Even when she doesn’t spot them, she imagines what they might be doing, creating for them the imaginary life she wants herself. 

“My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home”. 

Rachel is the perfect voyeur: anonymous, addicted to looking at others from a distance. She stalks her ex-husband, Tom, who’s left her for another woman and now has a baby daughter. She repeatedly humiliates herself with drunken phone calls, texts, visits to her old house. Many of these incidents she can barely remember, the alcohol erasing her memories, leaving nothing but hints in a pit of darkness. Rachel Watson appears to be one sandwich short of a picnic.

But then, she is offered a chance to become part of the lives she’s only imagined. One morning, Rachel briefly sees Jess/Megan kissing a man other than her husband. Rachel is tempted to snitch, but decides against it. The next day she wakes up severely hungover, knowing something is wrong, but not sure what. She recalls snippets of a violent incident the previous night, but the details are unclear.

A day later, news reports surface that Megan, has gone missing. Confused, scared, and desperate to entrench herself in this story, Rachel goes to the police, who dismiss her as an alcoholic Peeping Tom. She also approaches Scott, who clearly has a much darker side than the imaginary Jason.

British author Paul Hawkins’ debut is an intriguing, riveting, compulsive thriller and it’s not for nothing that it’s been the fastest selling novel in the UK so far this year. It’s told from multiple viewpoints, jumping back and forth mostly between Rachel’s account of the present, and Megan’s account of the year preceding her disappearance. In this fashion, the reader is led through the mystery that throws up a few red herrings. My measure of a good thriller or murder mystery is the point at which I figure out what happened or who’s the killer. If a book can keep it obfuscated from me for at least three quarters of the plot, I consider it a success. The Girl on the Train managed to keep me guessing until 50 pages before the end. 

If you loved Gone Girl, this is your ideal weekend read. And just like the latter, The Girl on the Train is to become a film, with Olivia Wild rumoured to play the lead. Clearly, there is an appetite, both in literature and on the big screen, for creative and less formulaic thrillers. The Girl on the Train is anything but a paint-by-numbers murder mystery. 

Notable passage:

“Something happened, something bad. There was an argument. Voices were raised. Fists? I don’t know, I don’t remember…

Something happened. I know it did. I can’t picture it, but I can feel it. The inside of my mouth hurts, as though I’ve bitten my cheek, there’s a metallic tang of blood on my tongue. I feel nauseated, dizzy. I run my hands through my hair, over my scalp. I flinch. There’s a lump, painful and tender, on the right side of my head. My hair is matted with blood…

I’m frightened, but I’m not sure what I’m afraid of… I get out of bed. I’m naked”.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Published by Penguin Random House SA.

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