Oh boy. This is that rare thing: a bestseller that actually does live up to its reputation. Whatever you do, don’t start reading it if you have anything to do in the near future. As a contemporary thriller, it’s not the kind of book I’d normally read – but there’s been so much talk about it recently and, with news of a film adaptation in the works, I thought I’d better read it before it can be spoiled for me. I never got round to reading Gone Girl, for example, and now that’s been so widely discussed that there seems little point in starting on it. But The Girl on the Train was all that I expected it to be and more, because I bought it without any real idea of what it was. It’s the kind of book you read with your heart in your mouth and the world around you strangely muted as if you’re submerged beneath the water.
There’s only so much I can or will say, because I believe this book is best savoured ‘cold’ and unspoiled, so this post will (perhaps) be briefer than usual. We meet our narrator, Rachel, on her train commute to and from London. On most days a red signal halts the train next to a line of townhouses whose gardens run down to the track, and Rachel has become accustomed to watching the young couple who live in the nearest house. She grows fond of them; gives them names – Jess and Jason; invents histories for them, and savours their evident happiness. In their contented companionship they seem to encapsulate everything that Rachel herself has failed to achieve, lost in a haze of of a failed marriage and alcoholism – all the more so because they live just a few doors down from the house she herself lived in with her ex-husband. Jess and Jason become totemic figures to her, a reassuring sign that love can and does really exist in the world.
But then, one Friday morning, Rachel sees Jess out in her garden with another man – a stranger. A kiss is exchanged. Shocked at this ugly turn of events, and moved to protect the wronged Jason, Rachel decides to intervene. But she is too late. On Monday morning the papers show that her fantasy is undone for ever. Jason’s name isn’t Jason: it’s Scott; and Jess’s name isn’t Jess but Megan. And Megan has gone missing. Rachel, who feels a measure of connection to these strangers, becomes absorbed in the investigation and finds a new lease of life in her sleuthing. But matters are never quite as simple as they seem, because Rachel knows that she was on Megan and Scott’s road on the night that Megan vanished, and that she was drunk, and that if only she can recover the blacked-out memories from that evening, she might be able to find the unsettling piece of evidence which will provide an answer to Megan’s disappearance once and for all.
The reason this book keeps you reading, compulsively, greedily, is because you have three narrative strands, each of them gradually adding more pieces to the jigsaw, each of them converging slowly but surely on that moment when everything will make sense. Our three narrators are not necessarily liars, but they’re unreliable: they tell us only part of the story, or they forget; they’re driven by obsession, or they remember things mistakenly. And, as the story deepens, we come to realise that everyone has their own demons and that one’s fantasies of the perfect couple one spots from the train, in the midst of one’s own dull, unexciting life, are only that – a fantasy – perhaps darker and more dangerous than one could ever imagine.
And another thing about this book – it lingers. I feel positively tainted by its unsettling story – somehow dirty, uneasy, guilty. It’s a very strong piece of work, fast-paced and threatening, and I suggest you read it now, if you haven’t already, before it ends up all over the news with the advent of the film.
Back to my nice, cosy historical fiction next, I think!