Unreliable Narrators: The Girl on the Train

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

One of the most commented and searched posts on my blog from last year was the review I did of Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. In it I touched on the idea of an unlikeable narrator and how that can colour what actually happens in the story. Can you really trust what an unlikeable, unreliable narrator is telling you?

While the narrator in Koch’s book is telling you his version of events, filtered by his prejudices and a certain amount of self preservation, in The Girl on the Train Paula Hawkins’ narrator doesn’t really know what happened.

train

Rachel Watson takes the same commuter train into London and home every day. On the way in, the train stops at a light right outside some Victorian row houses and Rachel can see into the home at number 15. Here a young couple she christens Jason and Jess go about their morning routine. Rachel imagines that Jason is a doctor, heading out to save the world for weeks at a time. She imagines that Jess is some kind of creative, maybe she has a studio in the house where she paints, or she works in the fashion industry. Whatever she does, Rachel knows that Jess must miss Jason so much when he’s away because he’s such a kind, thoughtful and supportive husband.

But then one day as she’s passing, Rachel sees something that changes everything she thinks she knows about this couple and when, days later, “Jess” has gone missing, she decides that she has to tell the police what she knows.

The problem of course is that she actually doesn’t know anything. And Rachel has a bit of a drinking problem so the police are super suspicious of her from the beginning, pegging her as a rubbernecker.

As Rachel’s story unfolds, we find out more about what her life looked like five years ago and even two years ago. We begin to understand how she got to where she is. We also meet Megan (Jess’ real name) starting a year earlier and find out what her and Scott’s (Jason) life actually looked like. And finally, we meet Anna, who lives in Rachel’s old house, which was doors down from where Megan now lives. This goes some ways to explaining why Rachel became interested in what was happening at number 15 in the first place.

Hawkins used to be a journalist and it shows in the way she handles this story. Her prose is short and to the point. It is deceptively simple, straightforward writing but which infuses the whole thing with the best kind of suspense. Her narrator struggles with alcohol, trying to stay sober for hours, then a day, then three days together before ultimately giving in. Rachel gets black out drunk, calling and texting and emailing people she wouldn’t if she were sober. Her black outs also mean that she can’t always remember everything that’s happened to her – how she got that cut on her head, where the bruises on her arm came from, why she’s ended up in this room and not her own.

It’s been compared to Before I Go To Sleep and I can see the similarities. Both centre around a woman who doesn’t know the whole story as they try and put all the pieces together. But while Before I Go To Sleep deals with a brain injury, The Girl on the Train‘s narrator suffers from self-inflicted memory loss.

Rachel, Anna and Megan aren’t always the most likeable characters. Neither are the men in their lives. Each character hides parts of themselves from the world and keep some devastating secrets. Hawkins ably handles all their stories and has crafted a superb thriller.

There are still weeks and weeks of winter to get through and I can’t think of a better book to hunker down under the blankets with than The Girl on the Train.

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18 thoughts on “Unreliable Narrators: The Girl on the Train

  1. When I saw this being compared to Gone Girl, I wasn’t very interested. But both you and Lindsey have convinced me that it would be better. I liked Before I Go To Sleep, and I like unreliable narrators. (In the Land of Bird fishes is a good read, too, if you like unreliable narrators.) The alcoholism also reminds me of The Empty Room.

    • Well we’ve definitely been duped by that comparison before! Before I Go To Sleep was insane. I remember finishing it and just being stunned but also wanting to yell. I thought the alcoholism added a really great dimension to the whole thing – she’s struggling with that the whole time. It almost becomes another character.

  2. Funnily enough this book is advertised all over the train and tube stations here but I’ve not been inclined to read it, but your review has made me want to go out and buy a copy straight away!

    • Woohoo! I hope you like it! I see that it’s being given away at train stations in Vancouver and Toronto today but that doesn’t really help you! You’ll get a much greater sense of place living in London though.

  3. The Comparisons to Summer House with Swimming Pool and Before I Go To Sleep caught my attention. I next went to Amazon and the first reader review I read also compared it to Hitchcock. At this time I didn’t bother reading further and placed the order.

  4. Don’t worry. The premise and general descriptions of the book I read here and subsequently elsewhere sound promising. You get the credit for bringing the book to my attention, and the author gets the blame if the book doesn’t live up to expectations.

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