As a crime fiction fan and the daughter of a railway worker I have a fondness for mysteries that take place around trains and am well-served, with many authors being attracted to the theme. Both Patricia Highsmith (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) and Agatha Christie (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) have produced genre classics that centre on trains. I can think of two detectives who do the majority of their sleuthing on trains: Victor Whitechurch’s vegetarian railway detective Thorpe Hazell, and Robert Craddock who is the hero of Edward Marston’s historical series set in the era in which trains were first making their way through England’s countryside. Stories, like this one, in which people glimpse something momentous through a train window, are especially popular. As far back as 1890 Émile Zola, in LA BÊTE HUMAINE, wrote of a man grappling with his own mental issues who spies a man with a knife through a train window and then finds a body. In Dame Christie’s lesser known train-based novel, 4:50 FROM PADDINGTON, an elderly woman travelling on one train sees a man strangling a woman in a train passing in the other direction.
Alas THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN won’t be joining my collection of great train mysteries. In my head it will be forever known as THE DRUNK I WISH HAD FALLEN UNDER A TRAIN but I guess that’s not a title that speeds off the bookstore shelves with quite the same volume as books with the now almost ubiquitous GIRL title do.
The book is told from the first-person perspective of three women. Rachel, our primary whiny narcissist, is the unemployed, alcoholic ex-wife of Tom, a man she remains obsessed with. She is the girl of the book’s title. On her daily train journeys to and from London she looks out the window, focusing most intently on what she can see of the goings on in the street where she used to live with the aforementioned Tom. One day she sees something that angers her which later turns out to, possibly, have some wider significance. Megan is the unemployed, anxious wife of Scott, a man she doesn’t seem able to be faithful to for five minutes. Anna is the new wife of Tom and stay-at-home-mum of baby Evie. She misses being Tom’s mistress, having never felt any guilt over that role (although she pretended to when talking to her friends).
I could quote great swathes of the novel as examples of why I found these dishonest, judgemental, amoral characters so excruciating to read about but we’d be here all day. So I decided to use just one passage, this one from Megan, to illustrate the kind of vapid self-absorption the book is peppered with. She is ruminating on the fact her husband needs reassurance that she is not ‘up to anything’
I can’t really be angry with him because he has good reason to be suspicious. I’ve given him cause in the past and probably will again. I am not a model wife. I can’t be. No matter how much I love him it won’t be enough…I told myself I wouldn’t do it again, not after last time, but then I saw him and I wanted him and I thought ‘why not?’ I don’t see why I should restrict myself. Lots of people don’t. Men don’t. I don’t want to hurt anybody but you have to be true to yourself don’t you?.
If that sounds like the sort of person you want to spend a few hours with then by all means read the book. If it doesn’t, then do yourself a favour and go for a walk.
I know fictional characters do not have to be likeable. But, surely, they are obliged to be interesting. In teeny tiny morsels, amidst the endless self-pity all three women drone on with, some explanations are offered for their respective attitudes and behaviour. But the explanations took far too long to materialise and are too obvious to make the women’s stories compelling. Even Rachel admits drunks like her are boring. And the fact that her narration is a mixture of dreams, drunken half-memories and imaginings just makes her unreliable. Not interesting.
To be clear I found the characterisations quite believable, just not engaging. When I come across such people in real life I take steps to spend as little time as possible in their company. If life is too short to read awful books it is surely too short to spend with dullards. Especially whiny ones whose only interest is themselves and the slights – both real and imagined – life in their first-world bubbles has dealt them.
There isn’t even much of a mystery. One of the women disappears and the other two are, in their way, involved. But I didn’t think it much of a stretch to work out what had gone on. Not that I cared. I mainly read to the end because this is a selection for my book club (I always try to finish those). Plus for a while I held out hope that more of the characters would die. But they weren’t even interesting enough for that.
The overall plot is cleverly constructed – the way the three women’s stories and relationships are unveiled is a genuine accomplishment – but so many individual elements are ham-fisted, such as Rachel’s too-convenient alcoholic blackouts that last only until forward movement demands she remember something more, that I can’t even be positive about the storyline. I thought for a while that the author was making some commentary about transient nature of reality – one person’s truth is not necessarily another’s and so on – but then I decided I was looking for meaning in all the wrong places.
I am baffled by the hype and superlatives that have been heaped upon this novel. Even my fellow book club member loves it (which might make for an interesting discussion when the club gets together this weekend). Sometimes I am able to see what it is that attracts people about a book I haven’t enjoyed but in this instance I feel like I have read a completely different thing. I cannot imagine why anyone who didn’t feel bound by book club ethics would bother reading more than a few pages about the self-indulgent, dull-witted individuals that populated the book I read. Indeed I gave up on the hard copy version of the book supplied by my friendly library and resorted to the audio version for about the last half of the book. At least that way I could wash dishes as I consumed the story so my time wasn’t completely wasted.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrators Clare Corbett, India Fisher, Louise Brealey
Publisher Random House Audio 
Length 10 hours 57 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
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