Book review: ‘The Girl on the Train,’ by Paula Hawkins
Special to the Daily
The book world was rocked in early January when the thriller “The Girl on the Train” hit the shelves and raced to the top of the best-seller lists. A real runaway train ride of adrenaline, this debut novel by British author Paula Hawkins has taken the world by storm. Set in modern-day London, the suspense is oddly intense and immediate, from the cryptic first pages to an ending that satisfies and has one eager for more from this clever writer.
The very idea of a commuter train zipping along a busy route immediately evokes two worlds — worlds that rarely bump up against each other except at the bustling stations where the passengers exchange themselves for new ones.
With the train providing a momentary link before the streams of humanity part once more, Hawkins deftly captures the thrill and romance of riding the rails, and after the first few pages, the reader can feel the hypnotic rhythm and the inexplicable allure of the screeching wheels and the clattering of the train cars.
As the story — written in a loose journal style and presented from multiple perspectives — develops, the reader excitedly gathers clues, knowing they will help solve the puzzle that seems to be developing. Hawkins reveals the drama in syncopated snippets, drawing the reader into the suburban world along the banks of the commuter railway line.
Who hasn’t stared from a train, musing over the scraps of people’s lives glimpsed as the blurred colors coalesce into structured scenes? Imaginings blossom — pictures of the possible dramas unfolding in the houses and offices that unfurl as a train speeds and slows its way toward the station.
Rachel, the “girl on the train,” is at the center of the unraveling mystery, and Hawkins cleverly maintains the perplexing veil that seems to surround her. The story is, at its core, about perception and reality, and the appeal of the book is that it is unclear which is which.
Rachel rides the train every morning and evening, yearning for a shake-up, the predictable journey serving as a metaphor for the often-smothering routine of life. With her own life adrift, she longs for more, and she spends the twice-daily journey dreaming, making up names for the people in the houses along the tracks, imagining their lives. A pile of clothes spotted near the rails as the train lurches past sends Rachel’s imagination spinning, and the reader follows, heightening the doubt and mystery as the puzzle comes together.
The intersections of the lives she sees and her own convoluted entanglements are at the heart of what makes Hawkins’ book so compelling. This is where the beauty — and the ugliness — dwells. Its like “Rear Window” from a moving train. The reader catches glimpses of characters’ personalities and stories unfolding — both inside and outside the train.
No one is whom they seem, and the obscurity of that reality drives the narrative, building a sinister sheen over the shadows that loom in everyone’s lives. Rachel becomes so absorbed in her imaginings, she is not fully aware of where the line is between fact and fiction, even regarding her own actions.
Her life is in tatters, unraveling into skeins she can no longer recognize. She cannot tell what changes her from whom she once was. Edges become soft, convictions become deficiencies and strengths become weaknesses. Hawkins astutely blurs all the lines, and the result is a rush, a fast-paced and helter-skelter thriller that is well deserving of its spot at the top. “The Girl on the Train” is the perfect summer book, a fun read whether pool-side or while traveling … maybe by train. Just take care; you never know what you might see when you look out the window.
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