Rifling through a box of discarded things in an acquaintance’s house, Rachel, the central character of Paula Hawkins’s bestselling thriller The Girl on the Train, slices the tip of her forefinger on a broken picture frame. The cut and the frame cause her to pause and wonder “about how things get broken all the time by accident, and how sometimes you just don’t get round to getting them fixed.”
The picture frame prompts Rachel to think of broken objects in her own once-married life, of plates that were smashed and of a hole in the wall plaster. Hawkins’s — and perhaps Rachel’s — point is a bigger one, though. The picture in the frame and Rachel’s thoughts on her past are linked to her failed marriage, and we can’t help but tie Rachel’s observation — “sometimes you just don’t get round to getting them fixed” — to some people’s inability or choice not to repair “things” in relationships, too. Moreover, because the woman in the picture has been murdered and because Rachel has been brutally locked into the room she is in, when this quote appears at the three-quarter mark of the novel, we also can’t help but feel dread about other broken things that the novel exposes and unintentional links that Rachel might be making.
Rachel is the “girl on the train” who rides into London and back every workday. As she travels she creates stories about what she sees from the train. Her favourite storyline focuses on one couple — she calls them Jess and Jason — and when one morning Rachel sees Jess kissing another man affectionately, her curiosity is piqued. Her curiosity turns to worry when she learns a few days later that Jess is missing.
It can be hard to place significance in Rachel’s reactions and understandings. She is drunk for much of the story, even downing cans of gin and tonic on the train, so what she sees, feels, and remembers — if she remembers — must be considered in relationship to the effects of her drinking. Her decision-making takes a foreboding turn when Rachel plunges into her own investigation of what happened to Jess.
Reviewers have pointed to similarities between this novel and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Both authors use unreliable narrators, focus on tense dynamics in couples’ relationships, and use twist endings, for instance. In addition, although we might accept that we can never really know what’s going on in another person’s head, these two authors make this fact scary, because they compel us to see the dark side of it in relationships that we want to be open, happy, and loving.
In The Girl on the Train, moreover, Hawkins helps us to understand why some characters might not be open, happy, and loving. On the other hand, she is careful to convey that there are characters whose behaviour can’t easily be explained, who abuse others without a qualm or show no personal control in morally questionable circumstances, and we are left to wonder if they act this way because they haven’t been able to “fix” themselves after something in them was broken. No matter the causes of their actions, once we learn of these tendencies in them, we are always worried about what they’re really thinking and what they’re going to do next.