Girl on the Train reads how it is: a popular book by a skilled journalist. It operates exactly as it intends and became a lucrative film as a result. The narrative, developed in headed chapters by three distinct female narrators, heightens the psychological tension both within and between these characters. The ending, alas, was somewhat disappointing for me inasmuch as it seemed written and prepared for the screen, and seem unduly inert and convenient.
The main narrator is an alcoholic and is portrayed sensitively. Her blackouts, whilst a useful plot device, seem relatively convincing. Her position as the feckless housemate is exploited well, especially as the narrator in these sections, Rachel, is entirely aware of her failings and actions. I found the roots of her alcoholism to be touching: the breakdown of a marriage is, especially for dependent women, akin to a bereavement. Its social and emotional turmoil is not simply unpleasant, it effects are socially and economically devastating. Rachel’s economic entrapment progresses the narrative. Knowing how expensive train rides are in England, her symbolism of maintaining the pretended connection to commuter society is desperately transient. This common motif of emotional turmoil leading to emotional spaces is portrayed wisely by Hawkins:
“Hollowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps”
The idea of filling spaces, of becoming something through future actualisation forms a continued lexis throughout the text. While terminated relationships do indeed leave social-emotional spaces in the lives of people, especially those dependent on those spaces, it is the intractable stasis of such spaces, the ‘concrete[ness]’ of them, that causes much mental illness. Rachel’s financial and emotional inability to move on from a failed marriage risk entrapping her in values that no longer nourish. Her poisonous reactions in the realm of love signpost this stasis:
‘I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all. Hatred floods me. If I saw that woman now, if I saw Jess, I would spit in her face. I would scratch her eyes out.’
As I read this book partly to support a student studying it, I was observant of any gaslighting – the manipulation of one partner by another in an enclosed couple. I found this gaslighting was understated. As the relationship between Rachel and Tom has already ended, the moments of gaslighting for them were retrospective, and other gaslighting was limited, also, to snatched exchanges about some quite extreme scenarios. Personally, I would have liked to see a more insidious undermining indicated by narrative hints and changes, although perhaps that would have risked unseating the narrative pacing of the story.
Despite this, Rachel’s lamenting for her failed relationship is handled tremendously well. Hawkins writes with wisdom when she reflects on her ex’s criticism, and her ensuing reflection, as:
“When did you become so weak?” I don’t know. I don’t know where that strength went, I don’t remember losing it. I think that over time it got chipped away, bit by bit, by life, by the living of it.”
Of course, we are aware that such weakness in a personality will likely be indicative of flaws in a relationship itself. However, Rachel has seemed to internalised its failure. This is particularly damning of how patriarchy can likely play in the nuclear family. Patriarchy, being the head of a family, should ideally entail that responsibility for the family is on the man. That responsibility requires active and personal sacrifice and a dedication to supporting others. The nuclear family, alas, and especially those internationally as I experienced, suffers from a lack of regulation in the relationships. There quite simply aren’t enough people intimate in a relationship to regulate one partner’s perception. Rachel’s experience is not new, and will no doubt silently resound with many readers
I also noticed that the text is purposefully set within the demographic of London commuters. When we talk of median wages being 26k+ in the UK, we are not really speaking about the most common wages available in the Northern and Midland towns in which I grew up. That is still, in 2018, something nearing 18-22k. Instead, the huge wages in London, especially for commuters, inflate the average wages for others. Commuters, and especially thriller-reading commuters, are perhaps being one of the most affluent demographics in England That is not to say that commuter culture is ideal: it is a sufferance, requiring the sacrifice of quality time and energy with family to earn extra money.
The huge wages in London also suffer from the expensive economy streams of London-life. As I know from friends and family who live in these areas, there is an immense pressure to justify this physical sacrifice of time and energy by embracing conspicuous consumption. Rachel’s fantasy of ‘Jess and Jason’, the couple she sees from the train, and her nihilist disdain of this advertised world is bleak although distinctly feminine:
“Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies, no one to play with, nothing to do. Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.”
Ultimately Rachel has embraced a commuter life without any of its perks, residing inside her tiny universe with minimal experience or agency, save when she drinks. I thought in this realm Hawkins could have played out her dislocation from her mother much more, and it was here that I thought the plot pacing came first, again. It was here that the book reflected the experience of a lifetime commuter: you share some intimacy with this book, and yet there is an emotional distance that is not entirely unintended. A decent read, a well-paced plot, and a successful, clever writer.