The Girl on the Train is a narrative in three voices – each one in the simple form of a diary, and each diary really not distinctive from the others, from a linguistic point of view. What makes the characters different is their feelings and experiences, not their language.
At least one of these narrators is of the unreliable kind in that she is an alcoholic who only remembers in patches. The doubt introduced by this device allows the writer to instil some tension in the novel and create a sense of alternative narrative possibilities. The diaries are given dates, though I didn’t find this affected my reading, as it was too much trouble to look back and compare them, and they were of different periods, and not consecutive. In a way this odd chronology made the whole thing rather puzzling at times, but I was able to overlook that and get on with the story.
The main narrative voice is that of an overweight woman in her thirties who has turned to drink after the breakup of a relationship. She isn’t looking after herself and has gained weight – generally she feels she is unattractive and is on a downward spiral. She has lost her job but continues to travel to work in order to conceal her lack of employment from her friend / landlady. From the train she watches the flat that she used to share with a boyfriend who has moved on to a new relationship and is now a father. At the same time she watches a couple down the same street who she sees as in some way idealised, in a perfect relationship.
The second and third diaries are from the point of view of this idealised girl, and from the viewpoint of her old boyfriend’s new partner. As the novel develops we find out more about these characters and their relationships. Eventually there is a report that the idealised girl is missing – later she is found to be dead. The solution – the murderer – is somewhere in this little world and the story unfolds in a way that eventually leads us to discover the culprit.
It’s fairly standard stuff – a mystery death, several possible perpetrators and in the climactic scene two possible victims locked together in a room with the deranged killer.
This is an international best seller, so it clearly has something of interest to some people – otherwise I would have thought word of mouth would have done it down before now. My wife and I both read it recently and found it rather predictable, tedious and uninteresting. The character development was limited and a bit cliched – based largely around stereotypes of feminine beauty and idealistic images of family life. The male characters were really only ciphers or caricatures – images of male violence or beauty.
I suppose in the end we both finished the book – so that’s an achievement of a kind, and if you want something light and easy to read on holiday or during a long journey you can’t really go wrong with this. It’s not very challenging, it’s an easy read and it’s got some basic suspense!