Formulaic, manipulative but good portrayal of alcoholic narrator and undeniable page turner

This is my review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

Rachel’s morning commuter train often stops at a red signal near Euston, enabling her to fantasise over an attractive couple who live in a house backing onto the railway line. Its layout is familiar to Rachel, since she recently lived a few doors away from it in the house still occupied by ex-husband Tom, now with his new wife Anna and baby daughter. Her grief over this is driving Rachel into the downward spiral of an erratic, embarrassing alcoholic but when exactly did she begin to drink too much and why?

This is the starting point of a twisty psychological thriller which relies heavily on the way vital details are revealed. The viewpoint switches between Rachel and the object of her fantasy, Megan, at times also including Anna, to make a somewhat clunky dramatic triangle, as each recalls recent events in a kind of mental diary. It is often interesting to see how these different characters see the same events. Rachel’s personality is the most fully developed: probably an unreliable narrator, perhaps guilty of some dreadful act committed in a drunken haze, arousing contempt or frustrated pity mixed with despair in those who have to deal with her, she also evokes sympathy in the reader with her flashes of wry humour and self-knowledge. In contrast, Megan and Anna seem to speak with the same voice, shallow and unstable cyphers, in fact all the characters apart from Rachel tend to be portrayed as two-dimensional stereotypes. None of them is very likeable, although that does not bother me.

This book is not particularly well-written, it has clearly been over-hyped, a conscious attempt to recreate the success of “Gone Girl”. It is easy to guess the key to the mystery, and final chapters leading up to the climax seem more rushed and formulaic than the intriguing slow build of the first half. Although the highly visual descriptions pave the way for a film of the book, I shall not feel driven to watch it.

Despite this, the novel is definitely a page turner with a plot which is imaginative in detail if somewhat hackneyed in its main thrust. The ending was better than the let down I had expected. It fascinates me how brilliant, insightful wordsmiths are often hopeless at plots, or underestimate their importance, whereas those with a gift for constructing an intrigue cannot prevent themselves from slipping into banal, clichéd prose. The recent novels “I saw a man” and “Disclaimer” seem to me to achieve a stronger combination of good writing and intriguing plot.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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