The Girl on the Train is yet another predictable marriage thriller

The domestic noir genre is replete with stereotypes and this debut novel, although clever in parts, does not break out of the mould.

The protagonist is a divorcee who becomes obsessed with what she sees from her commute. iStock photo
Powered by automated translation

One of the most successful genres of the last couple of years has been the marriage thriller, culminating with the much-anticipated release of big-screen adaptations of both S J Watson's Before I Go to Sleep and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. After Flynn's story in particular garnered a huge body of attendant criticism – writing in The New Yorker Joshua Rothman called David Fincher's film a "postmodern mystery", and fellow critic Elif Batuman wrote a brilliant critique of what Flynn's story really tells us about matrimony, Marriage Is An Abduction – I figured that we'd reached something of a saturation point when it came to domestic noir. This, unfortunately, was mere wistful thinking on my part. I eagerly picked up Paula Hawkins' debut The Girl on the Train hoping for something a bit different, even the first of the next big thing in thrillers perhaps, only to discover that what I was reading was nothing more than just another marriage thriller.

Hawkins uses three narrators to tell her story, though the central figure is Rachel, a 30-something, lonely, alcoholic divorcee who rides a commuter train from her home in Buckinghamshire to London's Euston station and back every day. Prepublication claims describing the novel as a contemporary Hitchcockian thriller left me expecting something akin to The Lady Vanishes, or even a Murder on the Orient Express-esque locomotive-set mystery. However, it's not so much what happens on the train as what happens off it that drives the plot. "Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment," Rachel muses, looking out of the carriage window.

There’s a particular stretch of track on her commute during which the train inevitably comes to a halt at a red signal that just so happens to overlook the back gardens of a certain row of suburban houses. As a practised voyeur, Rachel knows that if she positions herself correctly in the right carriage, as the train shudders to a standstill she’s afforded an unadulterated view into number 15, her favourite house on the street. She knows it “by heart”, and the couple who live there have become as familiar to her as close friends. She’s even given them names – Jess and Jason – and backstories: a perfect marriage for a perfect couple. But then one morning Rachel sees Jess (real name Megan) in the arms of a man who isn’t Jason, and then, only a few days later, her instantly recognisable face appears in the newspapers after her husband reports her missing. Convincing herself that what she saw might have bearing on Megan’s disappearance, Rachel approaches the police.

Drawn into the intrigue, Rachel is given a sense of purpose that’s been missing from her life – “I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected. I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose” – but as the plot thickens, she slowly realises her real involvement in the drama is actually much more than just “drunk Rachel – wanting to be part of the story”, and we learn that she’s got her own reasons for being drawn to that particular row of houses alongside the railway tracks: just a couple of doors down from Megan and Scott live Rachel’s ex-husband Tom, his new wife Anna and their baby.

Following the kind of split narrative used to popular effect in both Gone Girl and A S A Harrison's The Silent Wife, Flynn's story not only jumps between narrators it also flits between the past and the present in the process. It's a clever device, useful for keeping the reader guessing for as long as possible, and the suspense is successfully further heightened by Rachel's inherent untrustworthiness since her alcoholism renders her both an unreliable witness as far as the police are concerned, and the booze-soaked blackouts she suffers from leave gaping holes in her own timeline of events. These devices, coupled with twists and turns aplenty will certainly appease many Gone Girl fans, but I have to admit that I found the plot more than a little clunky and slow-moving in parts, and I certainly wasn't on tenterhooks, having guessed the conclusion of the tale long before the traditional and entirely predictable denouement. But my marriage-thriller fatigue aside, what grated the most was the fact that Hawkins' envisioning of each of the three central female characters was determined entirely by their fertility (or lack thereof). It's just so disheartening that popular fiction is still actively propagating such outdated one-dimensional female stereotypes.

Lucy Scholes is freelance journalist who lives in London.