Hawkins, Paula, The Girl on the Train, Hew York: Riverhead, January 2015
The Girl on the Train at Goodreads
The Girl on the Train at IBList
The movie version at IMdb
(Note that this article is intended for those who have read the novel or are familiar with the plot.)
At no point did I intend to write a review for this novel. I don't review everything I read and invest my time only if I feel I have something to add to the multitude of comments available on the cluttered universe of the internet. Though I pretend to be unconventional in my thinking, at times I am resigned to agree with what has already been stated, and such was my reaction to The Girl on the Train. In addition, though I enjoyed the book on a surface level, it just isn't compelling enough for a full-blown analysis or ambiguous enough for complex theory-building. The bulk of reviews I've encountered are fairly generic and collectively repetitive, and though I seek friendly dissent for the sake of conversation, for the most part I agreed with the popular response.
Recently, however, thinking about the characters in the book and the discordant opinions of the narrator, my thoughts railed onto an interesting track that I thought I would share.
That The Girl on the Train is populated with unlikable characters is a given: the narrator(s) and victim are on par with the aggressor on the scale of dislike. Yet these feelings extend beyond the named characters to reach the general background populace, a public that revels in the public shaming of those involved in the case of the missing woman. It can be argued that Hawkins is not deliberately building a story centered around negative characters, but that the state of the characters is a reflection of the urban landscape in which they live. That landscape, the gritty suburban London of the novel, is as present throughout the work as any of its main players; without the landscape the novel would have lacked an important layer and as a result would have lost much of its affectation.
The suburban London we are presented with is a mirage of middle class values. An affordable neighbourhood outside a bustling, expensive metropolis, where a young family can safely establish itself, is rendered a dark secretive community. Not quite gated but neither is it open to outsiders. Yet in reality this friendly family-oriented community is merely an extension of its urban roots, and the train acts like the vein that attaches these outlying neighbourhoods to the urban core. The suburban image of safety and community is false: it is not free of the darkness associated with the city, as suburbia often pretends to be. Because it is inhabited by people, it functions amid the dark failings of humanity. Where humans dwell there will be immoral desire and crime.
Prime narrator Rachel Watson moved to suburbia when she married Tom, and though displaced by divorce, she peers into that former (false) world of bliss via her train commute to London. It is from the train window that she can spy, in glimpses, into her previous world. The distorted view from the window leads her into the distorted reality of her former life. Where once was her life with Tom, she now sees Tom with a new wife and their baby. Rachel longs for that world, but eventually learns that the comfort she expects to obtain in suburbia is an illusion, and the further into the mystery of the missing neighbour Megan she delves, the more uncomfortable that world becomes.
In essence, the evil we are capable of transcends geography, as the vein that connects humans to the outskirts of urban society carries with it not just the bodies but also their inherent abilities to act immorally. The landscape in Hawkins's novel hides corpses, evidence of crime and the darkness of our pasts along with the acts which the average society member is capable of performing.
Important to note is that this landscape is the consistent backdrop of the three different narrators and that, as a result, these women are united by landscape more so than by the murder or the murderer they were each involved with, to some degree. Though the killer affects each of these women to a great degree, the killer is not present in every aspect of their lives or their histories, whereas London and its surroundings are consistently present and relevant. That girl might at one time be on the train, but these women are consistently, in one form or the other, in the city.
With the recent success of works such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl , what should have been appropriately tiled "The Woman on the Train" was instead rejuvenated as our woman was placed in the state of girlhood. I wonder if we can be revisionist with this practice and, with the aim to help increase sales on reprints, re-title some well-worn works. Louisa May Alcott's Little Girls, Wilkie Collins's Girl in White, Margaret Atwood's Girl Oracle, Lord Alfred Tennyson's The Girl of Shalott, John Gray's Men Are from Mars, Girls are from Venus...
But I digress.