62. How did she do that? – The Girl on the Train reverse engineered

The Girl on the Train was one of the big publishing sensations of 2015. So it’s worth paying attention to how Paula Hawkins did this (apart from good writing and the normal quota of luck, of course). The novel is a thriller. But it’s a women’s thriller. By that I mean that it’s a confessional first-person glimpse of the emotional mess of the three main female characters. There’s a murder, but there’s also voyeurism, and the Barbie and Ken fantasy Rachel constructs about the couple she sees from the window of her commuter train every day.

Girl on the Train

Two things probably explain the book’s novelty. The commuter train is a masterstroke. We’ve all done it – peering from the train windows down other people’s back gardens and through their patio doors, comparing their lives with ours. This is a book written to be read on commuter journeys. The other thing that makes the book distinctive is that nobody, absolutely nobody, is likeable. Some readers hated that, but the truth is successful characters don’t have to be likeable, they just have to be interesting. That’s on trend. These days, we like our characters dark – black is the new white.

The requirements of the thriller format are scrupulously followed – secrets, mysteries, red herrings and danger. The plot gradually develops, folded-in with care like egg whites to the meringue of the confessional. In truth, the plot is not that complex, and it’s possible to glimpse the outcome from early in the read. But the inter-weaving is skilful.
The confessional style is also not new, though it is more Sylvia Plath than Brigid Jones.

And so, what about character? The story is told through three different points of view. Their narratives follow distinct timelines, converging on the climax. But the three characters, despite their different lives, are all very much the same person. This is probably intentional.

There is little by way of character development, which also disappointed some readers. Though, to be fair, Rachel emerges stronger at the end. Yet Hawkins’ crisp writing manages to keep us interested in the characters and the unfolding plot. She even manages, and this is no mean feat, the conceit of describing the murder in a first-person diary account by the victim and make it convincing.

Next long rail journey, pick up a copy of The Girl on the Train.

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