The #1 New York Times Bestseller, USA Today Book of the Year, now a major motion picture starring Emily Blunt. Don't miss Paula Hawkins' new novel, Into the Water, coming May 2017.
The debut psychological thriller that will forever change the way you look at other people's lives.
“Nothing is more addicting than The Girl on the Train.”—Vanity Fair
“The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl. . . . [It] is liable to draw a large, bedazzled readership.”—The New York Times
“Marries movie noir with novelistic trickery. . . hang on tight. You'll be surprised by what horrors lurk around the bend.”—USA Today
“Like its train, the story blasts through the stagnation of these lives in suburban London and the reader cannot help but turn pages.”—The Boston Globe
“Gone Girl fans will devour this psychological thriller.”—People
EVERY DAY THE SAME
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
About the Author
Paula Hawkins worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction. The Girl on the Train is her first thriller. A #1 New York Times bestseller, it has been published all over the world, and is soon to be major motion picture. Hawkins lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
• • •
She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn. Not more than a little pile of stones, really. I didn’t want to draw attention to her resting place, but I couldn’t leave her without remembrance. She’ll sleep peacefully there, no one to disturb her, no sounds but birdsong and the rumble of passing trains.
• • •
One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl . . . Three for a girl. I’m stuck on three, I just can’t get any further. My head is thick with sounds, my mouth thick with blood. Three for a girl. I can hear the magpies—they’re laughing, mocking me, a raucous cackling. A tiding. Bad tidings. I can see them now, black against the sun. Not the birds, something else. Someone’s coming. Someone is speaking to me. Now look. Now look what you made me do.
• • •
FRIDAY, JULY 5, 2013
There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks. Light-blue cloth—a shirt, perhaps—jumbled up with something dirty white. It’s probably rubbish, part of a load dumped into the scrubby little wood up the bank. It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track, they’re here often enough. Or it could be something else. My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination; Tom said that, too. I can’t help it, I catch sight of these discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe and the feet that fitted into them.
The train jolts and scrapes and screeches back into motion, the little pile of clothes disappears from view and we trundle on towards London, moving at a brisk jogger’s pace. Someone in the seat behind me gives a sigh of helpless irritation; the 8:04 slow train from Ashbury to Euston can test the patience of the most seasoned commuter. The journey is supposed to take fifty-four minutes, but it rarely does: this section of the track is ancient, decrepit, beset with signalling problems and never-ending engineering works.
The train crawls along; it judders past warehouses and water towers, bridges and sheds, past modest Victorian houses, their backs turned squarely to the track.
My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.
Someone’s phone is ringing, an incongruously joyful and upbeat song. They’re slow to answer, it jingles on and on around me. I can feel my fellow commuters shift in their seats, rustle their newspapers, tap at their computers. The train lurches and sways around the bend, slowing as it approaches a red signal. I try not to look up, I try to read the free newspaper I was handed on my way into the station, but the words blur in front of my eyes, nothing holds my interest. In my head I can still see that little pile of clothes lying at the edge of the track, abandoned.
The premixed gin and tonic fizzes up over the lip of the can as I bring it to my mouth and sip. Tangy and cold, the taste of my first-ever holiday with Tom, a fishing village on the Basque coast in 2005. In the mornings we’d swim the half mile to the little island in the bay, make love on secret hidden beaches; in the afternoons we’d sit at a bar drinking strong, bitter gin and tonics, watching swarms of beach footballers playing chaotic twenty-five-a-side games on the low-tide sands.
I take another sip, and another; the can’s already half empty, but it’s OK, I have three more in the plastic bag at my feet. It’s Friday, so I don’t have to feel guilty about drinking on the train. TGIF. The fun starts here.
It’s going to be a lovely weekend, that’s what they’re telling us. Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies. In the old days we might have driven to Corly Wood with a picnic and the papers, spent all afternoon lying on a blanket in dappled sunlight, drinking wine. We might have barbecued out back with friends, or gone to the Rose and sat in the beer garden, faces flushing with sun and alcohol as the afternoon went on, weaving home, arm in arm, falling asleep on the sofa.
Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies, no one to play with, nothing to do. Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.
The weekend stretches out ahead of me, forty-eight empty hours to fill. I lift the can to my mouth again, but there’s not a drop left.
MONDAY, JULY 8, 2013
It’s a relief to be back on the 8:04. It’s not that I can’t wait to get into London to start my week—I don’t particularly want to be in London at all. I just want to lean back in the soft, sagging velour seat, feel the warmth of the sunshine streaming through the window, feel the carriage rock back and forth and back and forth, the comforting rhythm of wheels on tracks. I’d rather be here, looking out at the houses beside the track, than almost anywhere else.
There’s a faulty signal on this line, about halfway through my journey. I assume it must be faulty, in any case, because it’s almost always red; we stop there most days, sometimes just for a few seconds, sometimes for minutes on end. If I sit in carriage D, which I usually do, and the train stops at this signal, which it almost always does, I have a perfect view into my favourite trackside house: number fifteen.
Number fifteen is much like the other houses along this stretch of track: a Victorian semi, two storeys high, overlooking a narrow, well-tended garden that runs around twenty feet down towards some fencing, beyond which lie a few metres of no-man’s-land before you get to the railway track. I know this house by heart. I know every brick, I know the colour of the curtains in the upstairs bedroom (beige, with a dark-blue print), I know that the paint is peeling off the bathroom window frame and that there are four tiles missing from a section of the roof over on the right-hand side.
I know that on warm summer evenings, the occupants of this house, Jason and Jess, sometimes climb out of the large sash window to sit on the makeshift terrace on top of the kitchen-extension roof. They are a perfect, golden couple. He is dark-haired and well built, strong, protective, kind. He has a great laugh. She is one of those tiny bird-women, a beauty, pale-skinned with blond hair cropped short. She has the bone structure to carry that kind of thing off, sharp cheekbones dappled with a sprinkling of freckles, a fine jaw.
While we’re stuck at the red signal, I look for them. Jess is often out there in the mornings, especially in the summer, drinking her coffee. Sometimes, when I see her there, I feel as though she sees me, too, I feel as though she looks right back at me, and I want to wave. I’m too self-conscious. I don’t see Jason quite so much, he’s away a lot with work. But even if they’re not there, I think about what they might be up to. Maybe this morning they’ve both got the day off and she’s lying in bed while he makes breakfast, or maybe they’ve gone for a run together, because that’s the sort of thing they do. (Tom and I used to run together on Sundays, me going at slightly above my normal pace, him at about half his, just so we could run side by side.) Maybe Jess is upstairs in the spare room, painting, or maybe they’re in the shower together, her hands pressed against the tiles, his hands on her hips.
Turning slightly towards the window, my back to the rest of the carriage, I open one of the little bottles of Chenin Blanc I purchased from the Whistlestop at Euston. It’s not cold, but it’ll do. I pour some into a plastic cup, screw the top back on and slip the bottle into my handbag. It’s less acceptable to drink on the train on a Monday, unless you’re drinking with company, which I am not.
There are familiar faces on these trains, people I see every week, going to and fro. I recognize them and they probably recognize me. I don’t know whether they see me, though, for what I really am.
It’s a glorious evening, warm but not too close, the sun starting its lazy descent, shadows lengthening and the light just beginning to burnish the trees with gold. The train is rattling along, we whip past Jason and Jess’s place, they pass in a blur of evening sunshine. Sometimes, not often, I can see them from this side of the track. If there’s no train going in the opposite direction, and if we’re travelling slowly enough, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of them out on their terrace. If not—like today—I can imagine them. Jess will be sitting with her feet up on the table out on the terrace, a glass of wine in her hand, Jason standing behind her, his hands on her shoulders. I can imagine the feel of his hands, the weight of them, reassuring and protective. Sometimes I catch myself trying to remember the last time I had meaningful physical contact with another person, just a hug or a heartfelt squeeze of my hand, and my heart twitches.
TUESDAY, JULY 9, 2013
The pile of clothes from last week is still there, and it looks dustier and more forlorn than it did a few days ago. I read somewhere that a train can rip the clothes right off you when it hits. It’s not that unusual, death by train. Two to three hundred a year, they say, so at least one every couple of days. I’m not sure how many of those are accidental. I look carefully, as the train rolls slowly past, for blood on the clothes, but I can’t see any.
The train stops at the signal as usual. I can see Jess standing on the patio in front of the French doors. She’s wearing a bright print dress, her feet are bare. She’s looking over her shoulder, back into the house; she’s probably talking to Jason, who’ll be making breakfast. I keep my eyes fixed on Jess, on her home, as the train starts to inch forward. I don’t want to see the other houses; I particularly don’t want to see the one four doors down, the one that used to be mine.
I lived at number twenty-three Blenheim Road for five years, blissfully happy and utterly wretched. I can’t look at it now. That was my first home. Not my parents’ place, not a flatshare with other students, my first home. I can’t bear to look at it. Well, I can, I do, I want to, I don’t want to, I try not to. Every day I tell myself not to look, and every day I look. I can’t help myself, even though there is nothing I want to see there, even though anything I do see will hurt me. Even though I remember so clearly how it felt that time I looked up and noticed that the cream linen blind in the upstairs bedroom was gone, replaced by something in soft baby pink; even though I still remember the pain I felt when I saw Anna watering the rosebushes near the fence, her T-shirt stretched tight over her bulging belly, and I bit my lip so hard, it bled.
I close my eyes tightly and count to ten, fifteen, twenty. There, it’s gone now, nothing to see. We roll into Witney station and out again, the train starting to pick up pace as suburbia melts into grimy North London, terraced houses replaced by tagged bridges and empty buildings with broken windows. The closer we get to Euston, the more anxious I feel; pressure builds; how will today be? There’s a filthy, low-slung concrete building on the right-hand side of the track about five hundred metres before we get into Euston. On its side, someone has painted: LIFE IS NOT A PARAGRAPH. I think about the bundle of clothes on the side of the track and I feel as though my throat is closing up. Life is not a paragraph, and death is no parenthesis.
The train I take in the evening, the 5:56, is slightly slower than the morning one—it takes one hour and one minute, a full seven minutes longer than the morning train despite not stopping at any extra stations. I don’t mind, because just as I’m in no great hurry to get into London in the morning, I’m in no hurry to get back to Ashbury in the evening, either. Not just because it’s Ashbury, although the place itself is bad enough, a 1960s new town, spreading like a tumour over the heart of Buckinghamshire. No better or worse than a dozen other towns like it, a centre filled with cafés and mobile-phone shops and branches of JD Sports, surrounded by a band of suburbia and beyond that the realm of the multiplex cinema and out-of-town Tesco. I live in a smart(ish), new(ish) block situated at the point where the commercial heart of the place starts to bleed into the residential outskirts, but it is not my home. My home is the Victorian semi on the tracks, the one I part-owned. In Ashbury I am not a homeowner, not even a tenant—I’m a lodger, occupant of the small second bedroom in Cathy’s bland and inoffensive duplex, subject to her grace and favour.
Cathy and I were friends at university. Half friends, really, we were never that close. She lived across the hall from me in my first year, and we were both doing the same course, so we were natural allies in those first few daunting weeks, before we met people with whom we had more in common. We didn’t see much of each other after the first year and barely at all after college, except for the occasional wedding. But in my hour of need she happened to have a spare room going and it made sense. I was so sure that it would only be for a couple of months, six at the most, and I didn’t know what else to do. I’d never lived by myself, I’d gone from parents to flatmates to Tom, I found the idea overwhelming, so I said yes. And that was nearly two years ago.
It’s not awful. Cathy’s a nice person, in a forceful sort of way. She makes you notice her niceness. Her niceness is writ large, it is her defining quality and she needs it acknowledged, often, daily almost, which can be tiring. But it’s not so bad, I can think of worse traits in a flatmate. No, it’s not Cathy, it’s not even Ashbury that bothers me most about my new situation (I still think of it as new, although it’s been two years). It’s the loss of control. In Cathy’s flat I always feel like a guest at the very outer limit of her welcome. I feel it in the kitchen, where we jostle for space when cooking our evening meals. I feel it when I sit beside her on the sofa, the remote control firmly within her grasp. The only space that feels like mine is my tiny bedroom, into which a double bed and a desk have been crammed, with barely enough space to walk between them. It’s comfortable enough, but it isn’t a place you want to be, so instead I linger in the living room or at the kitchen table, ill at ease and powerless. I have lost control over everything, even the places in my head.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 10, 2013
The heat is building. It’s barely half past eight and already the day is close, the air heavy with moisture. I could wish for a storm, but the sky is an insolent blank, pale, watery blue. I wipe away the sweat on my top lip. I wish I’d remembered to buy a bottle of water.
I can’t see Jason and Jess this morning, and my sense of disappointment is acute. Silly, I know. I scrutinize the house, but there’s nothing to see. The curtains are open downstairs but the French doors are closed, sunlight reflecting off the glass. The sash window upstairs is closed, too. Jason may be away working. He’s a doctor, I think, probably for one of those overseas organizations. He’s constantly on call, a bag packed on top of the wardrobe; there’s an earthquake in Iran or a tsunami in Asia and he drops everything, he grabs his bag and he’s at Heathrow within a matter of hours, ready to fly out and save lives.
Jess, with her bold prints and her Converse trainers and her beauty, her attitude, works in the fashion industry. Or perhaps in the music business, or in advertising—she might be a stylist or a photographer. She’s a good painter, too, plenty of artistic flair. I can see her now, in the spare room upstairs, music blaring, window open, a brush in her hand, an enormous canvas leaning against the wall. She’ll be there until midnight; Jason knows not to bother her when she’s working.
I can’t really see her, of course. I don’t know if she paints, or whether Jason has a great laugh, or whether Jess has beautiful cheekbones. I can’t see her bone structure from here and I’ve never heard Jason’s voice. I’ve never seen them up close, they didn’t live at that house when I lived down the road. They moved in after I left two years ago, I don’t know when exactly. I suppose I started noticing them about a year ago, and gradually, as the months went past, they became important to me.
I don’t know their names, either, so I had to name them myself. Jason, because he’s handsome in a British film star kind of way, not a Depp or a Pitt, but a Firth, or a Jason Isaacs. And Jess just goes with Jason, and it goes with her. It fits her, pretty and carefree as she is. They’re a match, they’re a set. They’re happy, I can tell. They’re what I used to be, they’re Tom and me five years ago. They’re what I lost, they’re everything I want to be.
My shirt, uncomfortably tight, buttons straining across my chest, is pit-stained, damp patches clammy beneath my arms. My eyes and throat itch. This evening I don’t want the journey to stretch out; I long to get home, to undress and get into the shower, to be where no one can look at me.
I look at the man in the seat opposite mine. He is about my age, early to midthirties, with dark hair, greying at the temples. Sallow skin. He’s wearing a suit, but he’s taken the jacket off and slung it on the seat next to him. He has a MacBook, paper-thin, open in front of him. He’s a slow typist. He’s wearing a silver watch with a large face on his right wrist—it looks expensive, a Breitling maybe. He’s chewing the inside of his cheek. Perhaps he’s nervous. Or just thinking deeply. Writing an important email to a colleague at the office in New York, or a carefully worded break-up message to his girlfriend. He looks up suddenly and meets my eye; his glance travels over me, over the little bottle of wine on the table in front of me. He looks away. There’s something about the set of his mouth that suggests distaste. He finds me distasteful.
I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.
One night last week, when I left my room to get myself a glass of water, I overheard Cathy talking to Damien, her boyfriend, in the living room. I stood in the hallway and listened. “She’s lonely,” Cathy was saying. “I really worry about her. It doesn’t help, her being alone all the time.” Then she said, “Isn’t there someone from work, maybe, or the rugby club?” and Damien said, “For Rachel? Not being funny, Cath, but I’m not sure I know anyone that desperate.”
THURSDAY, JULY 11, 2013
I’m picking at the plaster on my forefinger. It’s damp, it got wet when I was washing out my coffee mug this morning; it feels clammy, dirty, though it was clean on this morning. I don’t want to take it off because the cut is deep. Cathy was out when I got home, so I went to the off-licence and bought two bottles of wine. I drank the first one and then I thought I’d take advantage of the fact that she was out and cook myself a steak, make a red-onion relish, have it with a green salad. A good, healthy meal. I sliced through the top of my finger while chopping the onions. I must have gone to the bathroom to clean it up and gone to lie down for a while and just forgotten all about it, because I woke up around ten and I could hear Cathy and Damien talking and he was saying how disgusting it was that I would leave the kitchen like that. Cathy came upstairs to see me, she knocked softly on my door and opened it a fraction. She cocked her head to one side and asked if I was OK. I apologized without being sure what I was apologizing for. She said it was all right, but would I mind cleaning up a bit? There was blood on the chopping board, the room smelled of raw meat, the steak was still sitting out on the countertop, turning grey. Damien didn’t even say hello, he just shook his head when he saw me and went upstairs to Cathy’s bedroom.
After they’d both gone to bed I remembered that I hadn’t drunk the second bottle, so I opened that. I sat on the sofa and watched television with the sound turned down really low so they wouldn’t hear it. I can’t remember what I was watching, but at some point I must have felt lonely, or happy, or something, because I wanted to talk to someone. The need for contact must have been overwhelming, and there was no one I could call except for Tom.
There’s no one I want to talk to except for Tom. The call log on my phone says I rang four times: at 11:02, 11:12, 11:54, 12:09. Judging from the length of the calls, I left two messages. He may even have picked up, but I don’t remember talking to him. I remember leaving the first message; I think I just asked him to call me. That may be what I said in both of them, which isn’t too bad.
The train shudders to a standstill at the red signal and I look up. Jess is sitting on her patio, drinking a cup of coffee. She has her feet up against the table and her head back, sunning herself. Behind her, I think I can see a shadow, someone moving: Jason. I long to see him, to catch a glimpse of his handsome face. I want him to come outside, to stand behind her the way he does, to kiss the top of her head.
He doesn’t come out, and her head falls forward. There is something about the way she is moving today that seems different; she is heavier, weighed down. I will him to come out to her, but the train jolts and slogs forward and still there is no sign of him; she’s alone. And now, without thinking, I find myself looking directly into my house, and I can’t look away. The French doors are flung open, light streaming into the kitchen. I can’t tell, I really can’t, whether I’m seeing this or imagining it—is she there, at the sink, washing up? Is there a little girl sitting in one of those bouncy baby chairs up there on the kitchen table?
I close my eyes and let the darkness grow and spread until it morphs from a feeling of sadness into something worse: a memory, a flashback. I didn’t just ask him to call me back. I remember now, I was crying. I told him that I still loved him, that I always would. Please, Tom, please, I need to talk to you. I miss you. No no no no no no no.
I have to accept it, there’s no point trying to push it away. I’m going to feel terrible all day, it’s going to come in waves—stronger then weaker then stronger again—that twist in the pit of my stomach, the anguish of shame, the heat coming to my face, my eyes squeezed tight as though I could make it all disappear. And I’ll be telling myself all day, it’s not the worst thing, is it? It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever done, it’s not as if I fell over in public, or yelled at a stranger in the street. It’s not as if I humiliated my husband at a summer barbecue by shouting abuse at the wife of one of his friends. It’s not as if we got into a fight one night at home and I went for him with a golf club, taking a chunk out of the plaster in the hallway outside the bedroom. It’s not like going back to work after a three-hour lunch and staggering through the office, everyone looking, Martin Miles taking me to one side, I think you should probably go home, Rachel. I once read a book by a former alcoholic where she described giving oral sex to two different men, men she’d just met in a restaurant on a busy London high street. I read it and I thought, I’m not that bad. This is where the bar is set.
I have been thinking about Jess all day, unable to focus on anything but what I saw this morning. What was it that made me think that something was wrong? I couldn’t possibly see her expression at that distance, but I felt when I was looking at her that she was alone. More than alone—lonely. Perhaps she was—perhaps he’s away, gone to one of those hot countries he jets off to to save lives. And she misses him, and she worries, although she knows he has to go.
Of course she misses him, just as I do. He is kind and strong, everything a husband should be. And they are a partnership. I can see it, I know how they are. His strength, that protectiveness he radiates, it doesn’t mean she’s weak. She’s strong in other ways; she makes intellectual leaps that leave him openmouthed in admiration. She can cut to the nub of a problem, dissect and analyse it in the time it takes other people to say good morning. At parties, he often holds her hand, even though they’ve been together years. They respect each other, they don’t put each other down.
I feel exhausted this evening. I am sober, stone-cold. Some days I feel so bad that I have to drink; some days I feel so bad that I can’t. Today, the thought of alcohol turns my stomach. But sobriety on the evening train is a challenge, particularly now, in this heat. A film of sweat covers every inch of my skin, the inside of my mouth prickles, my eyes itch, mascara rubbed into their corners.
My phone buzzes in my handbag, making me jump. Two girls sitting across the carriage look at me and then at each other, with a sly exchange of smiles. I don’t know what they think of me, but I know it isn’t good. My heart is pounding in my chest as I reach for the phone. I know this will be nothing good, either: it will be Cathy, perhaps, asking me ever so nicely to maybe give the booze a rest this evening? Or my mother, telling me that she’ll be in London next week, she’ll drop by the office, we can go for lunch. I look at the screen. It’s Tom. I hesitate for just a second and then I answer it.
For the first five years I knew him, I was never Rachel, always Rach. Sometimes Shelley, because he knew I hated it and it made him laugh to watch me twitch with irritation and then giggle because I couldn’t help but join in when he was laughing. “Rachel, it’s me.” His voice is leaden, he sounds worn out. “Listen, you have to stop this, OK?” I don’t say anything. The train is slowing, and we are almost opposite the house, my old house. I want to say to him, Come outside, go and stand on the lawn. Let me see you. “Please, Rachel, you can’t call me like this all the time. You’ve got to sort yourself out.” There is a lump in my throat as hard as a pebble, smooth and obstinate. I cannot swallow. I cannot speak. “Rachel? Are you there? I know things aren’t good with you, and I’m sorry for you, I really am, but . . . I can’t help you, and these constant calls are really upsetting Anna. OK? I can’t help you anymore. Go to AA or something. Please, Rachel. Go to an AA meeting after work today.”
I pull the filthy plaster off the end of my finger and look at the pale, wrinkled flesh beneath, dried blood caked at the edge of my fingernail. I press the thumbnail of my right hand into the centre of the cut and feel it open up, the pain sharp and hot. I catch my breath. Blood starts to ooze from the wound. The girls on the other side of the carriage are watching me, their faces blank.
• • •
One year earlier
WEDNESDAY, MAY 16, 2012
I can hear the train coming; I know its rhythm by heart. It picks up speed as it accelerates out of Northcote station and then, after rattling round the bend, it starts to slow down, from a rattle to a rumble, and then sometimes a screech of brakes as it stops at the signal a couple hundred yards from the house. My coffee is cold on the table, but I’m too deliciously warm and lazy to bother getting up to make myself another cup.
Sometimes I don’t even watch the trains go past, I just listen. Sitting here in the morning, eyes closed and the hot sun orange on my eyelids, I could be anywhere. I could be in the south of Spain, at the beach; I could be in Italy, the Cinque Terre, all those pretty coloured houses and the trains ferrying the tourists back and forth. I could be back in Holkham, with the screech of gulls in my ears and salt on my tongue and a ghost train passing on the rusted track half a mile away.
The train isn’t stopping today, it trundles slowly past. I can hear the wheels clacking over the points, can almost feel it rocking. I can’t see the faces of the passengers and I know they’re just commuters heading to Euston to sit behind desks, but I can dream: of more exotic journeys, of adventures at the end of the line and beyond. In my head, I keep travelling back to Holkham; it’s odd that I still think of it, on mornings like this, with such affection, such longing, but I do. The wind in the grass, the big slate sky over the dunes, the house infested with mice and falling down, full of candles and dirt and music. It’s like a dream to me now.
I feel my heart beating just a little too fast.
I can hear his footfall on the stairs, he calls my name.
“You want another coffee, Megs?”
The spell is broken, I’m awake.
I’m cool from the breeze and warm from the two fingers of vodka in my martini. I’m out on the terrace, waiting for Scott to come home. I’m going to persuade him to take me out to dinner at the Italian on Kingly Road. We haven’t been out for bloody ages.
I haven’t got much done today. I was supposed to sort out my application for the fabrics course at St. Martins; I did start it, I was working downstairs in the kitchen when I heard a woman screaming, making a horrible noise, I thought someone was being murdered. I ran outside into the garden, but I couldn’t see anything.
I could still hear her, though, it was nasty, it went right through me, her voice really shrill and desperate. “What are you doing? What are you doing with her? Give her to me, give her to me.” It seemed to go on and on, though it probably only lasted a few seconds.
I ran upstairs and climbed out onto the terrace and I could see, through the trees, two women down by the fence a few gardens over. One of them was crying—maybe they both were—and there was a child bawling its head off, too.
I thought about calling the police, but it all seemed to calm down then. The woman who’d been screaming ran into the house, carrying the baby. The other one stayed out there. She ran up towards the house, she stumbled and got to her feet and then just sort of wandered round the garden in circles. Really weird. God knows what was going on. But it’s the most excitement I’ve had in weeks.
My days feel empty now I don’t have the gallery to go to any longer. I really miss it. I miss talking to the artists. I even miss dealing with all those tedious yummy mummies who used to drop by, Starbucks in hand, to gawk at the pictures, telling their friends that little Jessie did better pictures than that at nursery school.
Sometimes I feel like seeing if I can track down anybody from the old days, but then I think, what would I talk to them about now? They wouldn’t even recognize Megan the happily married suburbanite. In any case, I can’t risk looking backwards, it’s always a bad idea. I’ll wait until the summer is over, then I’ll look for work. It seems like a shame to waste these long summer days. I’ll find something, here or elsewhere, I know I will.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 14, 2012
I find myself standing in front of my wardrobe, staring for the hundredth time at a rack of pretty clothes, the perfect wardrobe for the manager of a small but cutting-edge art gallery. Nothing in it says “nanny.” God, even the word makes me want to gag. I put on jeans and a T-shirt, scrape my hair back. I don’t even bother putting on any makeup. There’s no point, is there, prettying myself up to spend all day with a baby?
I flounce downstairs, half spoiling for a fight. Scott’s making coffee in the kitchen. He turns to me with a grin, and my mood lifts instantly. I rearrange my pout to a smile. He hands me a coffee and kisses me.
There’s no sense blaming him for this, it was my idea. I volunteered to do it, to become a childminder for the people down the road. At the time, I thought it might be fun. Completely insane, really, I must have been mad. Bored, mad, curious. I wanted to see. I think I got the idea after I heard her yelling out in the garden and I wanted to know what was going on. Not that I’ve asked, of course. You can’t really, can you?
Scott encouraged me—he was over the moon when I suggested it. He thinks spending time around babies will make me broody. In fact, it’s doing exactly the opposite; when I leave their house I run home, can’t wait to strip my clothes off and get into the shower and wash the baby smell off me.
I long for my days at the gallery, prettied up, hair done, talking to adults about art or films or nothing at all. Nothing at all would be a step up from my conversations with Anna. God, she’s dull! You get the feeling that she probably had something to say for herself once upon a time, but now everything is about the child: Is she warm enough? Is she too warm? How much milk did she take? And she’s always there, so most of the time I feel like a spare part. My job is to watch the child while Anna rests, to give her a break. A break from what, exactly? She’s weirdly nervous, too. I’m constantly aware of her, hovering, twitching. She flinches every time a train passes, jumps when the phone rings. “They’re just so fragile, aren’t they?” she says, and I can’t disagree with that.
I leave the house and walk, leaden-legged, the fifty yards along Blenheim Road to their house. No skip in my step. Today, she doesn’t open the door, it’s him, the husband. Tom, suited and booted, off to work. He looks handsome in his suit—not Scott handsome, he’s smaller and paler, and his eyes are a little too close together when you see him up close, but he’s not bad. He flashes me his wide, Tom Cruise smile, and then he’s gone, and it’s just me and her and the baby.
THURSDAY, AUGUST 16, 2012
I feel so much better, as if anything is possible. I’m free!
I’m sitting on the terrace, waiting for the rain. The sky is black above me, swallows looping and diving, the air thick with moisture. Scott will be home in an hour or so, and I’ll have to tell him. He’ll only be pissed off for a minute or two, I’ll make it up to him. And I won’t just be sitting around the house all day: I’ve been making plans. I could do a photography course, or set up a market stall, sell jewellery. I could learn to cook.
I had a teacher at school who told me once that I was a mistress of self-reinvention. I didn’t know what he was on about at the time, I thought he was putting me on, but I’ve since come to like the idea. Runaway, lover, wife, waitress, gallery manager, nanny, and a few more in between. So who do I want to be tomorrow?
I didn’t really mean to quit, the words just came out. We were sitting there, around the kitchen table, Anna with the baby on her lap, and Tom had popped back to pick something up, so he was there, too, drinking a cup of coffee, and it just seemed ridiculous, there was absolutely no point in my being there. Worse than that, I felt uncomfortable, as if I was intruding.
“I’ve found another job,” I said, without really thinking about it. “So I’m not going to be able to do this any longer.” Anna gave me a look—I don’t think she believed me. She just said, “Oh, that’s a shame,” and I could tell she didn’t mean it. She looked relieved. She didn’t even ask me what the job was, which was a relief, because I hadn’t thought up a convincing lie.
Tom looked mildly surprised. He said, “We’ll miss you,” but that’s a lie, too.
The only person who’ll really be disappointed is Scott, so I have to think of something to tell him. Maybe I’ll tell him Tom was hitting on me. That’ll put an end to it.
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2012
It’s just after seven, it’s chilly out here now, but it’s so beautiful like this, all these strips of garden side by side, green and cold and waiting for fingers of sunshine to creep up from the tracks and make them all come alive. I’ve been up for hours; I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept in days. I hate this, hate insomnia more than anything, just lying there, brain going round, tick, tick, tick, tick. I itch all over. I want to shave my head.
I want to run. I want to take a road trip, in a convertible, with the top down. I want to drive to the coast—any coast. I want to walk on a beach. Me and my big brother were going to be road trippers. We had such plans, Ben and I. Well, they were Ben’s plans mostly—he was such a dreamer. We were going to ride motorbikes from Paris to the Côte d’Azur, or all the way down the Pacific coast of the USA, from Seattle to Los Angeles; we were going to follow in Che Guevara’s tracks from Buenos Aires to Caracas. Maybe if I’d done all that, I wouldn’t have ended up here, not knowing what to do next. Or maybe, if I’d done all that, I’d have ended up exactly where I am and I would be perfectly contented. But I didn’t do all that, of course, because Ben never got as far as Paris, he never even made it as far as Cambridge. He died on the A10, his skull crushed beneath the wheels of an articulated lorry.
I miss him every day. More than anyone, I think. He’s the big hole in my life, in the middle of my soul. Or maybe he was just the beginning of it. I don’t know. I don’t even know whether all this is really about Ben, or whether it’s about everything that happened after that, and everything that’s happened since. All I know is, one minute I’m ticking along fine and life is sweet and I want for nothing, and the next I can’t wait to get away, I’m all over the place, slipping and sliding again.
So, I’m going to see a therapist! Which could be weird, but it could be a laugh, too. I’ve always thought that it might be fun to be Catholic, to be able to go to the confessional and unburden yourself and have someone tell you that they forgive you, to take all the sin away, wipe the slate clean.
This is not quite the same thing, of course. I’m a bit nervous, but I haven’t been able to get to sleep lately, and Scott’s been on my case to go. I told him I find it difficult enough talking to people I know about this stuff—I can barely even talk to him about it. He said that’s the point, you can say anything to strangers. But that isn’t completely true. You can’t just say anything. Poor Scott. He doesn’t know the half of it. He loves me so much, it makes me ache. I don’t know how he does it. I would drive me mad.
But I have to do something, and at least this feels like action. All those plans I had—photography courses and cookery classes—when it comes down to it, they feel a bit pointless, as if I’m playing at real life instead of actually living it. I need to find something that I must do, something undeniable. I can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it—there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that or look around for something to distract you.
I’ve been kept waiting. The appointment was for half an hour ago, and I’m still here, sitting in the reception room flicking through Vogue, thinking about getting up and walking out. I know doctors’ appointments run over, but therapists? Films have always led me to believe that they kick you out the moment your thirty minutes are up. I suppose Hollywood isn’t really talking about the kind of therapist you get referred to on the National Health Service.
I’m just about to go up to the receptionist to tell her that I’ve waited long enough, I’m leaving, when the doctor’s office door swings open and this very tall, lanky man emerges, looking apologetic and holding out his hand to me.
“Mrs. Hipwell, I am so sorry to have kept you waiting,” he says, and I just smile at him and tell him it’s all right, and I feel, in this moment, that it will be all right, because I’ve only been in his company for a moment or two and already I feel soothed.
I think it’s the voice. Soft and low. Slightly accented, which I was expecting, because his name is Dr. Kamal Abdic. I guess he must be midthirties, although he looks very young with his incredible dark honey skin. He has hands I could imagine on me, long and delicate fingers, I can almost feel them on my skin.
We don’t talk about anything substantial, it’s just the introductory session, the getting-to-know-you stuff; he asks me what the trouble is and I tell him about the panic attacks, the insomnia, the fact that I lie awake at night too frightened to fall asleep. He wants me to talk a bit more about that, but I’m not ready yet. He asks me whether I take drugs, drink alcohol. I tell him I have other vices these days, and I catch his eye and I think he knows what I mean. Then I feel as if I ought to be taking this a bit more seriously, so I tell him about the gallery closing and that I feel at a loose end all the time, my lack of direction, the fact that I spend too much time in my head. He doesn’t talk much, just the occasional prompt, but I want to hear him speak, so as I’m leaving I ask him where he’s from.
“Maidstone,” he says, “in Kent. But I moved to Corly a few years back.” He knows that wasn’t what I was asking; he gives me a wolfish smile.
Scott is waiting for me when I get home, he thrusts a drink into my hand, he wants to know all about it. I say it was OK. He asks me about the therapist: did I like him, did he seem nice? OK, I say again, because I don’t want to sound too enthusiastic. He asks me whether we talked about Ben. Scott thinks everything is about Ben. He may be right. He may know me better than I think he does.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2012
I woke early this morning, but I did sleep for a few hours, which is an improvement on last week. I felt almost refreshed when I got out of bed, so instead of sitting on the terrace I decided to go for a walk.
I’ve been shutting myself away, almost without realizing it. The only places I seem to go these days are to the shops, my Pilates classes and the therapist. Occasionally to Tara’s. The rest of the time, I’m at home. It’s no wonder I get restless.
I walk out of the house, turn right and then left onto Kingly Road. Past the pub, the Rose. We used to go there all the time; I can’t remember why we stopped. I never liked it all that much, too many couples just the right side of forty drinking too much and casting around for something better, wondering if they’d have the courage. Perhaps that’s why we stopped going, because I didn’t like it. Past the pub, past the shops. I don’t want to go far, just a little circuit to stretch my legs.
It’s nice being out early, before the school run, before the commute gets going; the streets are empty and clean, the day full of possibility. I turn left again, walk down to the little playground, the only rather poor excuse for green space we have. It’s empty now, but in a few hours it will be swarming with toddlers, mothers and au pairs. Half the Pilates girls will be here, head to toe in Sweaty Betty, competitively stretching, manicured hands wrapped around their Starbucks.
I carry on past the park and down towards Roseberry Avenue. If I turned right here I’d go up past my gallery—what was my gallery, now a vacant shop window—but I don’t want to, because that still hurts a little. I tried so hard to make a success of it. Wrong place, wrong time—no call for art in suburbia, not in this economy. Instead, I turn right, past the Tesco Express, past the other pub, the one where people from the estate go, and back towards home. I can feel butterflies now, I’m starting to get nervous. I’m afraid of bumping into the Watsons, because it’s always awkward when I see them; it’s patently obvious that I don’t have a new job, that I lied because I didn’t want to carry on working for them.
Or rather, it’s awkward when I see her. Tom just ignores me. But Anna seems to take things personally. She obviously thinks that my short-lived career as a nanny came to an end because of her or because of her child. It actually wasn’t about her child at all, although the fact that the child never stops whinging did make her hard to love. It’s all so much more complicated, but of course I can’t explain that to her. Anyway. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been shutting myself away, I suppose, because I don’t want to see the Watsons. Part of me hopes they’ll just move. I know she doesn’t like being here: she hates that house, hates living among his ex-wife’s things, hates the trains.
I stop at the corner and peer into the underpass. That smell of cold and damp always sends a little shiver down my spine, it’s like turning over a rock to see what’s underneath: moss and worms and earth. It reminds me of playing in the garden as a child, looking for frogs by the pond with Ben. I walk on. The street is clear—no sign of Tom or Anna—and the part of me that can’t resist a bit of drama is actually quite disappointed.
Scott’s just called to say he has to work late, which is not the news I wanted to hear. I’m feeling edgy, have been all day. Can’t keep still. I need him to come home and calm me down, and now it’s going to be hours before he gets here and my brain is going to keep racing round and round and round and I know I’ve got a sleepless night coming.
I can’t just sit here, watching the trains, I’m too jittery, my heartbeat feels like a flutter in my chest, like a bird trying to get out of a cage. I slip my flip-flops on and go downstairs, out of the front door and on to Blenheim Road. It’s around seven thirty—a few stragglers on their way home from work. There’s no one else around, though you can hear the cries of kids playing in their back gardens, taking advantage of the last of the summer sunshine before they get called in for dinner.
I walk down the road, towards the station. I stop for a moment outside number twenty-three and think about ringing the doorbell. What would I say? Ran out of sugar? Just fancied a chat? Their blinds are half open, but I can’t see anyone inside.
I carry on towards the corner and, without really thinking about it, I continue down into the underpass. I’m about halfway through when the train runs overhead, and it’s glorious: it’s like an earthquake, you can feel it right in the centre of your body, stirring up the blood. I look down and notice that there’s something on the floor, a hair band, purple, stretched, well used. Dropped by a runner, probably, but something about it gives me the creeps and I want to get out of there quickly, back into the sunshine.
On the way back down the road, he passes me in his car, our eyes meet for just a second and he smiles at me.
• • •
FRIDAY, JULY 12, 2013
I am exhausted, my head thick with sleep. When I drink, I hardly sleep at all. I pass out cold for an hour or two, then I wake, sick with fear, sick with myself. If I have a day when I don’t drink, that night I fall into the heaviest of slumbers, a deep unconsciousness, and in the morning I cannot wake properly, I cannot shake sleep, it stays with me for hours, sometimes all day long.
There is just a handful of people in my carriage today, none in my immediate vicinity. There is no one watching me, so I lean my head against the window and close my eyes.
The screech of the train’s brakes wakes me. We’re at the signal. At this time of morning, at this time of year, the sun shines directly onto the back of the trackside houses, flooding them with light. I can almost feel it, the warmth of that morning sunshine on my face and arms as I sit at the breakfast table, Tom opposite me, my bare feet resting on top of his because they’re always so much warmer than mine, my eyes cast down at the newspaper. I can feel him smiling at me, the blush spreading from my chest to my neck, the way it always did when he looked at me a certain way.
I blink hard and Tom’s gone. We’re still at the signal. I can see Jess in her garden, and behind her a man walking out of the house. He’s carrying something—mugs of coffee, perhaps—and I look at him and realize that it isn’t Jason. This man is taller, slender, darker. He’s a family friend; he’s her brother or Jason’s brother. He bends down, placing the mugs on the metal table on their patio. He’s a cousin from Australia, staying for a couple of weeks; he’s Jason’s oldest friend, best man at their wedding. Jess walks towards him, she puts her hands around his waist and she kisses him, long and deep. The train moves.
I can’t believe it. I snatch air into my lungs and realize that I’ve been holding my breath. Why would she do that? Jason loves her, I can see it, they’re happy. I can’t believe she would do that to him, he doesn’t deserve that. I feel a real sense of disappointment, I feel as though I have been cheated on. A familiar ache fills my chest. I have felt this way before. On a larger scale, to a more intense degree, of course, but I remember the quality of the pain. You don’t forget it.
I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days: an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voice mail message; in my case it was an email, the modern-day lipstick on the collar. It was an accident, really, I wasn’t snooping. I wasn’t supposed to go near Tom’s computer, because he was worried I would delete something important by mistake, or click on something I shouldn’t and let in a virus or a Trojan or something. “Technology’s not really your strong point, is it, Rach?” he said after the time I managed to delete all the contacts in his email address book by mistake. So I wasn’t supposed to touch it. But I was actually doing a good thing, I was trying to make amends for being a bit miserable and difficult, I was planning a special fourth-anniversary getaway, a trip to remind us how we used to be. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I had to check his work schedule secretly, I had to look.
I wasn’t snooping, I wasn’t trying to catch him out or anything, I knew better than that. I didn’t want to be one of those awful suspicious wives who go through their husband’s pockets. Once, I answered his phone when he was in the shower and he got quite upset and accused me of not trusting him. I felt awful because he seemed so hurt.
I needed to look at his work schedule, and he’d left his laptop on, because he’d run out late for a meeting. It was the perfect opportunity, so I had a look at his calendar, noted down some dates. When I closed down the browser window with his calendar in it, there was his email account, logged in, laid bare. There was a message at the top from email@example.com. I clicked. XXXXX. That was it, just a line of Xs. I thought it was spam at first, until I realized that they were kisses.
It was a reply to a message he’d sent a few hours before, just after seven, when I was still slumbering in our bed.
I fell asleep last night thinking of you, I was dreaming about kissing your mouth, your breasts, the inside of your thighs. I woke this morning with my head full of you, desperate to touch you. Don’t expect me to be sane, I can’t be, not with you.
I read through his messages: there were dozens, hidden in a folder entitled “Admin.” I discovered that her name was Anna Boyd, and that my husband was in love with her. He told her so, often. He told her that he’d never felt like this before, that he couldn’t wait to be with her, that it wouldn’t be long until they could be together.
I don’t have words to describe what I felt that day, but now, sitting on the train, I am furious, nails digging into my palms, tears stinging my eyes. I feel a flash of intense anger. I feel as though something has been taken away from me. How could she? How could Jess do this? What is wrong with her? Look at the life they have, look at how beautiful it is! I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all. Hatred floods me. If I saw that woman now, if I saw Jess, I would spit in her face. I would scratch her eyes out.
What People are Saying About This
(starred review)“Hawkins keeps the tension ratcheted high in this thoroughly engrossing tale of intersecting strangers and intimate betrayals. Kept me guessing until the very end.”—Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of the Detective D. D. Warren series
“I simply could not put it down.”—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times–bestselling author of the Rizzoli and Isles series
“Gripping, enthralling—a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read.”—S. J. Watson, New York Times–bestselling author of Before I Go to Sleep
“Be ready to be spellbound, ready to become as obsessed. . . . The Girl on the Train is the kind of book you’ll want to press into the hands of everyone you know, just so they can share your obsession and you can relive it.”—Laura Kasischke, author of The Raising
“What a group of characters, what a situation, what a book! It’s Alfred Hitchcock for a new generation and a new era.”—Terry Hayes, author of I Am Pilgrim
“Artfully crafted and utterly riveting. The Girl on the Train’s clever structure and expert pacing will keep you perched on the edge of your seat, but it’s Hawkins’s deft, empathetic characterization that will leave you pondering this harrowing, thought-provoking story about the power of memory and the danger of envy.”—Kimberly McCreight, New York Times–bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia
Reading Group Guide
A debut psychological thriller that will forever change the way you look at other people's lives.
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut.
ABOUT PAULA HAWKINS
Paula Hawkins worked as a journalist for fifteen years before turning her hand to fiction. She lives in London. The Girl on the Train is her first thriller. It is being published all over the world and has been optioned by Dreamworks.
- We all do it—actively watch life around us. In this way, with her own voyeuristic curiosity, Rachel Watson is not so unusual. What do you think accounts for this nosey, all-too-human impulse? Is it more extreme in Rachel than in the average person? What is so different about her?
- How would you have reacted if you’d seen what Rachel did from her train window—a pile of clothes—just before the rumored disappearance of Megan Hipwell? What might you or she have done differently?
- In both Rachel Watson’s and Megan Hipwell’s marriages, deep secrets are kept from the husbands. Are these marriages unusual or even extreme in this way? Consider how many relationships rely on half-truths? Is it ever necessary or justifiable to lie to someone you love? How much is too much to hide from a partner?
- What about the lies the characters tell to themselves? In what ways is Rachel lying to herself? Do all people tell themselves lies to some degree in order to move on with their lives? Is what Rachel (or any of the other characters) is doing any different from that? How do her lies ultimately affect her and the people around her?
- A crucial question in The Girl on the Train is how much Rachel Watson can trust her own memory. How reliable are her observations? Yet since the relationship between truth and memory is often a slippery one, how objective or “true” can a memory, by definition, really be? Can memory lie? If so, what factors might influence it? Consider examples from the book.
- One of Rachel’s deepest disappointments, it turns out, is that she can’t have children. Her ex-husband Tom’s second wife Anna is the mother to a young child, Evie. How does Rachel’s inability to conceive precipitate her breakdown? How does the topic of motherhood drive the plot of the story? What do you think Paula Hawkins was trying to say about the ways motherhood can define women’s lives or what we expect from women’s domestic lives, whether as wives, mothers, or unmarried women in general?
- Think about trust in The Girl on the Train. Who trusts whom? Who is deserving of trust? Is Rachel Watson a very trustworthy person? Why or why not? Who appears trustworthy and is actually not? What are the skills we use to make the decision about whether to trust someone we don’t know well?
- Other characters in the novel make different assumptions about Rachel Watson depending on how or even where they see her. To a certain extent, she understands this and often tries to manipulate their assumptions—by appearing to be a commuter, for instance, going to work every day. Is she successful? To what degree did you make assumptions about Rachel early on based on the facts and appearances you were presented? How did those change over time and why? How did your assumptions about her affect your reading of the central mystery in the book? Did your assumptions about her change over its course? What other characters did you make assumptions about? How did your assumptions affect your interpretation of the plot? Having now finished The Girl on the Train, what surprised you the most?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Paula Hawkins
"There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks." Of such incongruities small irregularities in the order of the everyday are the great works of suspense made. And what more resonant and perfect signifier of everyday orderliness than a London-bound commuter train? The legendary reliability of Britain's railroads has long made them central to detective fiction its timetables and ticket clerks providing alibis for every modern sleuth to test.
With her debut novel, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins begins, though, from the place where the dependable reality of the twenty-first-century morning train meets its inevitable counterpart: the commuter's daydreams as she stares out of its windows, catching snapshots of the lives that scroll past. And in the person of Rachel Watson yes, note that last name those daydreams have a discomfortingly obsessive edge. Brooding over a collapsed marriage and medicating her wounds with canned gin and tonics, Rachel finds herself fantasizing about the perfect couple inhabiting one suburban home she passes every morning. When one half of that couple disappears, Rachel's fixation on the pair she thinks of as "Jason and Jess" draws her into a missing-persons case that seems uncannily connected with the life she has been unable to leave behind.
The result is a tightly woven tale of voyeuristic escape, suburban secrets and hidden violence that invokes the work of Highsmith and Hitchcock, and compels an intense, single-sitting read. Paula Hawkins spoke to us from her home in London about the genesis of The Girl on the Train and the allure of that fleeting view out the window. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: I wanted to talk to you about looking into other people's windows whether you're looking from a train, as the narrator of this novel is, into the houses that she's passing on the train; or, if you're walking down a city street. There's something those brief glimpses into other people's lives which is almost endlessly fascinating.
Paula Hawkins: I think that's absolutely right. Not always, but often you get a sense of connection if you recognize something, be it a print on the wall or a nice piece of furniture design, and you think, "Oh, that's really lovely; I'd like those people . . . " You almost feel like sometimes that you've made a connection with them. Obviously, in the book she's going way further than that, but I think a lot of people actually do that.
I also think there's a sense of wondering, "What would my life be like if I lived there?" I often have that when I am passing places. You look into somewhere and you think . . . you know, you can sort of imagine how you would be, what sort of person you might be if you lived in that particular house. So I think that's part of the fascination. Or, you know, what are their lives like, those people who are there? What does it say about you that you live there, or you've decorated your house in a certain way or whatever it might be.
BNR: Rachel, the main narrator of this book, goes a bit further she sees two people and she sees the way that they are, and extrapolates a whole life for them.
PH: Obviously, she is projecting a whole lot on to them, partly because she's got herself into this situation. She's thinking about what her old life was and winds up projecting a whole load of emotion onto these people, and creating this ideal life for them, just on the basis of these little glimpses that she sees every day.
BNR: Did this story come from a similar kind of imagining? Not similar, I would hope, to Rachel's own very obsessive fantasizing but were you looking out of a train window into the backs of people's houses and thinking about their lives?
PH: Yes, absolutely. I grew up in Africa, and then I moved to London when I was about seventeen, and I was quite lonely, and I'd left all my friends behind, and I was traveling to the college where I was studying. My train journey was on a tube (i.e., subway) train, but at one point it runs overground and really close to the backs of some apartments. They had little terraces, and people had strung up little lights, colored lights outside, or they had, you know, a table and chairs. I was worshipfully looking at these places. There was something that looked quite bohemian about them, and I could imagine, "Oh, I bet those people have got really nice lives." I could imagine having parties out there, or sitting out, you know, drinking a glass of wine, that sort of thing. I suppose that's when I first got that sense of the slightly wistful quality of looking out from a train window.
BNR: The romance of it.
PH: Yes, romanticizing. Again, that thing of "I bet my life would be so much more fun if I lived there." Rachel, who is thinking specifically about a happy relationship and a baby and all that kind of thing, is looking at it in a very specific way. But I think it could apply to anyone who is feeling perhaps a bit lonely or an outsider or what-have- you. I think this happens to a lot of people in big cities as well, doesn't it, because there is that sort of urban alienation. There's something comforting about seeing people in their homes, those little glimpses where the lights are on and they're all sort of warm and cozy inside.
BNR: Speaking of loneliness, there are three voices that move the story forward here. We have Rachel, who is looking into these lives in this suburban London neighborhood, and we quickly learn there's a couple that she sees there, and that the woman in that couple later disappears. We later hear, both from Megan, who is the woman who disappears, and also from a third voice, Anna, the woman Rachel's ex- husband has remarried. So these three women are the voices that give us the story and they all seem very, in a sense, fearful of being alone.
PH: It's a snapshot of their lives, so we're seeing them at a particular point in which none of them is feeling secure. Rachel has lost all her hopes of domesticity she's lost her marriage and what-have- you. Anna feels threatened by Rachel because she's hanging around. You know, she's aware that there's this Other Woman in the background. While Megan is a really restless person. So we're seeing that they are feeling rather precarious in their domestic situations.
BNR: Rachel, as we know from very early on, uses alcohol as a means of coping. Megan, on the other hand, in order to escape a haunting past, looks for escape in connections with men.
PH: I think Megan is one of those people who is constantly looking for the next best thing. Something else or someone best is going to come along. She is one of those people who can't quite settle on what she's got. As you say, she's trying to escape the horrible things that happened to her in her past, and I think her problem is she's constantly running from it instead of actually just confronting it.
So she tends to latch on to men in the hopes that they're going to make everything better for her, that the next relationship is going to be the one that really makes her whole and happy again. Possibly a therapist would say to her, "You've got to sort these problems out yourself; you can't keep just going to the next guy and hoping that that relationship is going to make you happy and make everything better."
BNR: Meanwhile, Rachel's early marriage has fallen apart, in part because of her drinking, but as I think you very adroitly show, it's almost impossible to sort out the chicken from the egg: Did the problems that she faced cause her to really become an alcoholic? Or did her incipient alcoholism take problems that other people could have dealt with and moved on from, and make them impossible?
PH: Absolutely. I think that's important, that we're not saying that her alcoholism has been caused by something else, because I don't think that's how it happens. I think that those various problems have exacerbated each other kind of thing, and I think that's how addiction takes root, doesn't it? Somebody else faced with her problem the fact that she couldn't have a child might have taken heart in the fact that she was still young. But you could see someone who is a bit hopeless, who has that particular weakness, allowing herself to slide into something.
BNR: She's stuck in that moment, in a piece of the past. But once Rachel learns that Megan the woman that she's been watching every day as she goes by on the train and fantasizing about has disappeared, she becomes obsessed with it, the first really "new" thing since her marriage ended. She's seen something on one of those trips that leads her to believe that she knows something about what really happened something the police don't and that lights a fire under her to pursue it as a mystery.
What's very psychologically compelling is the way that this new obsession only winds up leading her back to her own problem. It was fascinating to me because it connects this to some of the great works of crime and detective fiction inevitably the investigator winds up facing her own buried problems. When you were putting this story together, did you say, "This is going to lead her full circle"?
PH: That was part of it. You talk about her being stuck. She's stuck even in terms of where she's moved. She hasn't moved far away enough. She is not allowing herself to move past this. She literally passes the houses every day on her train journey that she doesn't actually need to take any more, because she drops her job. So she is slightly torturing herself, because, as you say, she will not move on from this idealized notion of the marriage that she had.
I think that was really important, that we're going on something of a journey with her, and although she doesn't defeat all her demons instantly, getting drawn into this mystery is actually a way in which she starts to pull herself out of the mess she's got herself into. She's lost all purpose at the beginning of the book. But solving this mystery, finding out what happened, actually gives her something to do other than just lose herself in her fantasies.
BNR: Much of Rachel's life is centered on her train commute to and from London. Of course, the title, The Girl on the Train, leads one to think about journeys, but Rachel is making only a circular journey, a journey that is, in a sense, sterile, and she has to find a way to make a different journey.
PH: Yes, to break that endless sort of cycle that she's on.
BNR: The detective novel is about a reason or discovery, finding the flaw in the plan and exposing it. But the psychological crime novel is about the past facing it, integrating it, piecing it together, and broken memory or absent memory is where the danger lies. This is a work of memory for Rachel. She has to remember in order to solve the problem.
PH: I think it's really interesting you say that, because there are a lot of psychological thrillers that deal with memory and the problems and sort of amnesias of various sorts. I'm working on another book at the moment, and I'm interested in how the memories we have and the stories we tell about ourselves come to actually make up who we are.
So if those memories are false in some way, if we're mis-remembering, or if we're making up stories from our past, those things can fundamentally change our characters. So yes, I think that's a really interesting way of looking at it.
BNR: Those problems with memory, also, create some of that sense of uncanny in a book like this The Girl on the Train has no supernatural element whatsoever, but it has a haunted sense about it.
PH: Yes. Definitely.
BNR: Rachel has alcoholic blackouts one in which she believes that she smashed the wall with a golf club in a rage though she has no precise memory of doing so. She describes the hole in the wall as a "blinded eye" that stares out at her a dreamlike and disturbing image, and it made me think a lot about the way in which these things that we can't face from our past wind up seeping into the fabric of the rest of life.
PH: Yeah. Even though you deny it and you push it away, I think that the sense of being haunted by it is very real, and those things will push at the edges of the rest of your psyche or everything you do. We see it with Rachel. We see it with Megan perhaps even more so. That she's pushed this thing away, but it just keeps coming back to this horrible memory. It frightens her. As we said, it haunts her. It makes her so afraid that she can't sleep, and that is all about pushing a memory away.
BNR: There are three characters here, all of whom go through related processes of coming to see or understand or face something that they had denied. Did you start with one woman's story, and her demons? Did you plot out all three of them and figure out how to work them together?
PH: I started with Rachel. When first I was writing, I thought I would just write it all, from one perspective.
BNR: So it was all to be Rachel at the beginning.
PH: That was my original idea. But then I found that I really needed Megan's viewpoint. I thought it wouldn't work without Megan. So then actually, most of the book I wrote with those two. . . . I did plot it all out with those two, but then later, at probably about three-quarters of the way in, I decided that I would add Anna's voice as well. So actually, it was plotted through with Rachel and Megan, and then Anna was added.
BNR: How did Anna's voice or perspective change things?
PH: It changed Anna's character. I found that once I was in Anna's head, looking at Rachel, looking at Megan, it changed the way I felt about Anna, becomes a much darker presence, I think, by the end of the book. She starts off as he Other Woman, then she becomes the happy wife and mother, and then she becomes something quite different.
I think I felt that I needed her to see what she was seeing, too. Most of it was plotted out, but there were twists at the end. There were some changes that did just happen organically rather than being planned.
BNR: Did you surprise yourself at all? Did you at the later stages of this say, "Oh, I didn't expect this . . . "
PH: Yeah, I did. I think there's a bit at the end that I completely hadn't thought of, and then it came to me, and I was thinking, "Oh yes, that would be good." Which is a really fun thing to do! It's so enjoyable I can't be one of those people who doesn't plot things out, because that would terrify me. But when things happen that you as the writer hadn't expected, when characters change in ways you hadn't expected them to, that's a really fantastic experience.
BNR: Are there influences or literary models that come to mind? Was this primarily a case of "Here's a story that comes to me and I'm going to follow it and see where it leads"? Or did you think, "I'd like to write a thriller" and go from there?
PH: Well, I think it's a bit of both. This is the genre that I enjoy reading. I really love psychological thrillers. There's an atmosphere of menace that I enjoy. Actually, they don't have to be driven by violence. Take Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal. Or Harriet Lane's Her. No one is murdered in those books or anything like that. But there's this sort of creeping sense of menace, that things are not right, things are not what they seem, people aren't what you think they are. They're not who you think them to be. I really find that fascinating.
BNR: Notes on a Scandal works wonderfully in this way the narrator's character emerges over time as far more obsessive and disturbed than one's first glimpse.
PH: She's very sinister. It's that sort of Hitchcockian atmosphere that you often have of paranoia, of people doubting themselves. "Did I see that? Did I do that? Am I going crazy here?" I really enjoy that. I find that really compelling.
BNR: You talk about enjoying that atmosphere of menace: I read The Girl on the Train in one straight, kind of obsessive gulp, and I had that pleasurable feeling of not being able to finish until I'd seen the culmination of the stories. It's a psychological state that one kind of puts oneself into that curiously mimics the characters the job of a reader in reading a psychological thriller is to experience a bit of the hysteria that is gripping the characters. And it turns out to be quite pleasurable.
PH: It's that feeling of not trusting anyone, suspecting everyone. I actually found when I was writing, I'd walk out and . . . go out to get something from the shops, and I'd feel quite creeped-out. I'd sort of see people and feel wary of them. I wouldn't usually. But I'd obviously got myself into that very sort of paranoid state. Which is fun when you're in the book or the writing, and then, when you step outside, it's actually less fun. You feel slightly unnerved by it.
But it's an odd thing, isn't it. I don't know why we enjoy this. I think partly it's a safe way of experiencing that hair-standing-up-on-the-back- of-your-neck kind of feeling. I suppose there's a bit of an adrenaline punch you get there that is in itself heightening.
January 20, 2015