Rachel takes the same train into London every morning and every day it stops at the same signal. If she manages to sit on the right side of the train, grabbing her favourite seat, she is often able to catch a glance of the perfect couple. She doesn’t know their names but to Rachel they are Jess and Jason and around them she has spun a web of perfect happiness. There’s another reason why this row of houses obsesses Rachel – a few doors down from Jess and Jason lives Rachel’s ex-husband Tom along with his new family, his wife Anna and their baby. But they don’t concern Rachel. She just wants a glimpse into the lives of Jess and Jason. Until the day comes when Rachel sees Jess in her garden in the arms of another man. Overwhelmed by anxiety, Rachel is determined to find out the identity of this man for whom Jess would risk her perfect life.
And then everything falls to pieces. Rachel wakes up one morning with no recollection of arriving home the night before. She is bruised and bloody. She then discovers that Jess, or Megan as Rachel now discovers she is really called, is missing, gone without a trace. Rachel cannot keep quiet. She has to know what has happened, she needs to reclaim her lost hours, and she will let nothing stand in her way as she pursues the truth to the bitter end.
That’s about as much as I want to mention of the plot as there is a great deal more to it than that and The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller that relies on shocking its readers, steering them round blind bends, teasing them with twists. Adding to the uncertainty is the structure of the book – it is divided into three first person narratives, focusing on the stories of the novel’s women – Rachel, Megan and Anna. The extent to which any can be relied upon is entirely up to the reader to decide but it soon becomes apparent that Rachel is not at all as she first seems. Why then should we trust the words of Megan and Anna? Who to believe? What to believe? And what has happened to Megan?
The Girl on the Train is a very difficult novel to put down. It pulses along, following the rhythms of the daily commute, switching between narrators, raising the levels of panic as confusion, loss of memory, secrecy and deceit struggle for dominance. The opening section on the novel focuses entirely on Rachel, slowing letting us creep into her world, and she is well able to ensnare the reader with her words.
The mystery at the heart of the novel is a puzzle indeed and, although I did guess it, I enjoyed where it took us. But the mystery is only one half of this novel, the rest comprises the portrait of Rachel and a lot of what you think of this novel will depend on how you respond to its portrayal of Rachel. Personally, while I enjoyed the puzzle and structure of the novel, both of which kept me turning the pages relentlessly, I was in two minds about Rachel. I was intrigued by her voice but as we get to know her more I began to feel that she is rather shabbily treated – not just by life but also by the author (or, to be more precise, the author’s persona). Rachel has some serious problems but as time goes by we begin to understand why and at that point I pitied Rachel enormously and felt she didn’t deserve a lot of what she gets in this book. I never liked Rachel but I felt extremely sorry for her and I wished that she had received a little more charity. It did feel on occasion a little unpleasant.
But then that is what this book feels all about – unsavoury business being found out. The three main female characters are not likeable, neither are the few male characters. The women in particular have worlds between them but there is no space for shared empathy. But the reader is made to feel curious by the novel’s fast beat, keeping the pages turning, moving from one woman’s life to another, chasing the clues, intrigued by Rachel’s obsession, feeling superior to her confusion.
While The Girl on the Train caught my interest and hung on to it until the end, I didn’t like anyone in it enough to care overmuch who would turn out to be the villain of the piece – this isn’t a sticking point for many but it did mar my enjoyment, compounded by my disgruntlement at how Rachel’s issues were handled and portrayed. I can understand why this novel is being compared to Gone Girl. There are several similarities, not just in the nature of the characters but also in the reader’s attitude to them. If you liked one then I think you might definitely enjoy the other.