I love travelling by rail (despite the expense). Even on routes I use regularly, there’s always a new and unexpected sight: never humdrum, never dull. Trains have featured in some of my favourite films – think ‘Brief Encounter’ – and provided me with a strong network of memories. They’ve even inspired me to write poetry. Inevitably, given the title, a train journey is also the starting point for the best-selling novel ‘The Girl on the Train’.
I finished reading it last weekend – on a train journey, as it happens. It wasn’t exactly the Orient Express: the carriage was bursting with beery cricket fans. My escape route was the plot, which was more than interesting enough to keep me glued to the screen of my Kindle! So what’s it all about?
Rachel drinks too much. That much is clear from the start. Every day, she travels, by rail, past the house she used to live in before her divorce; now, though, her ex-husband lives there with his new partner and their baby daughter. Bad enough. But every day, she sees another couple. She is drawn into making up names for them and imagines what their lives must be like. Then she sees something that doesn’t seem quite right, and one of the characters goes missing … but Rachel’s heavy drinking means she is labelled as an ‘unreliable witness’.
The plot develops through the narrative of three women: Rachel, Megan and Anna. None of the main characters, men or women, could be described as likeable; they’re all flawed, all somehow lost, all hiding something. Rachel lurches around (often literally) in search of the truth. Her suburban commuter-world is recognisable to all of us, yet it is peopled with characters who have slipped between the cracks, lost to drink, drugs or loneliness. Marginal people, who don’t quite fit, like Rachel. People who exist on the lonely edges of life, places like the long ribbons of waste land at the sides of railway tracks.
This could all make ‘The Girl on the Train’ sound somewhat depressing, and I suppose some aspects of it are a little bleak, but I found it hard to tear myself away at times, and found myself reading it far too late at night more than once! Rachel’s unwavering determination to find out the truth behind what she glimpsed from the train certainly kept my interest.