Nothing is better than a receiving book as a Christmas present. Unless it is a beautifully designed hardback book.
Paula Hawkin’s tapped into the current thirst for dark psychological thrillers, flawed female protagonists and unreliable narration to create this engrossing yet maddening novel.
Since her marriage ended in a fog of drunken rage and violence, Rachel has slipped further into alcoholism whilst her husband has moved his new wife and daughter into the home she had made for them. The story is largely told from Rachel’s perspective – her life slowly falling apart while she sits back on the train everyday, pierces open another can of gin and tonic, and fantasizes about the lives she can see from the window.
When Megan, a woman who Rachel often watches, goes missing, Rachel might be the person who holds the key to what happened to her. If only she could remember what she saw that night, or if she could stay sober long enough to retrace her steps and piece it all together.
Scattered between Rachel’s narrative are excerpts from Megan before she disappeared and the occasional insights from Anna, the new wife. This structure adds further layers to the plot and positions the reader as detective, tasked with pulling together what is relevant and reliable.
Whilst the mystery is gripping, what I found interesting about this novel was the way in which Hawkin’s positions the female characters. They don’t work or have their own ambitions, they all identify themselves by the men in their lives and are utterly scathing of every other female in the novel.
Rachel has completely fallen apart since her marriage with Tom ended and still calls him her husband and phones in the middle of the night.
Anna seems to have no life outside her husband, her child and her hatred of Rachel.
Megan is always viewing herself through the effect she has on men.
Another difficult aspect of the narrative is the automatic judgement of Rachel’s drinking and the unstoppable desire to shake sense into her. It’s so hard to understand the effect that addiction has on a person’s attitude towards relationships and their own lives that it is refreshing to see it explored through a main character. Even as Rachel thinks she needs to keep a clear head, and about how she will feel afterwards, these thoughts are not enough to stop the pain pushing her towards the stale white wine stashed under the bed.
Judgement runs throughout this novel – of alcoholism, of looks, of people’s pasts. This fuels a perpetual sense of distrust that is not just felt by the reader but by everyone Rachel tries to reach out to in her search for Megan, driving the story in a constant back-and-forth towards the truth. The jumps in time and narrator further complicate the mystery that, whilst difficult to get into, does keep you guessing until the end.
The constant circles of the story are echoed in the design of the special edition hardback created for Waterstones. The train tracks provide Rachel’s voyeurs platform, they draw her towards the other characters and but keep her removed and pull her away again. Her pointless travelling back and forth on the train mirrors the limbo her life has become and the continuous tracks on the cover perfectly sum up the maze that works through the novel.
Red edge-painting completes the incarnation of the sinister this novel.
Whilst no character is likeable, Hawkins has captured some unsavoury aspects of humanity and this fresh approach makes the process of unpicking the mystery in many ways more absorbing than the case itself.