The Girl on the Train Runs on Multiple Narrative Tracks

Techniques tracked:
-narrative structure: braiding first-person perspectives
-drowning your baby without being sexist


Paula Hawkins’ domestic thriller The Girl on the Train has been touted “the new Gone Girl(and so it, too, is being adapted into a movie), and while Salon’s Laura Miller identifies several ways it doesn’t live up to its predecessor (in the article I stole the above image from), I would argue Hawkins’ novel has a much more satisfactory conclusion. While Gillian Flynn presents an arresting allegorical tale of marriage’s psychological complexities, with some formal twists accentuating its dramatic ones, and sharper observed details and prose, the depiction of its principle female character, who could ultimately be characterized as a crazy, manipulative bitch, left, in my book, a lot to be desired.

One of the joys of the holiday season is being exposed to the extended blend that constitutes family. At my uncle’s gatherings, his ex- and current wife are always both present. In the sitcom Reba, which I had the fortune of being exposed to over the break, Reba’s ex-husband’s wife is a major character who herself eventually initiates divorce proceedings–an arc that could, in crudest terms, sum up that of Hawkins’ novel. While Flynn zeroes in on one marriage, Hawkins brings in a larger cast, playing on the drama inherent in the ex factor and leaving room for shifting alliances. By the end, a woman will leave the husband who left his wife for her just before the novel started.

The titular girl on the train is Rachel, who rides into London every day so her flatmate thinks she still has a job, passing directly by the house she used to share with Tom, where he now lives with Anna and their new baby (we eventually find out Rachel became the depressed drunk she is still after she failed to conceive a child). Rachel’s just as interested in the neighbors a few doors down, a couple she fantasizes has a perfect relationship–until one day she sees the woman kissing someone else. Rachel is very upset to see her cheating on her husband, betraying their supposedly perfect relationship, voluntarily throwing away what Rachel had ripped from her. Shortly thereafter, that woman, Megan, disappears from a train station on their street the same night Rachel’s there to drunkenly confront her ex (and not for the first time). Rachel can’t remember anything the next day, and even though she doesn’t believe she was involved in Megan’s disappearance, Hawkins starts dropping hints that she was–she’s got some nasty cuts and bruises, for one thing, and vague memories of having been in an argument. (But it’s early, and if the reader’s thinking Rachel’s the one who killed Megan, it must be misdirection.) Rachel goes to Megan’s husband Scott to tell him Megan was having an affair, leading them to Megan’s therapist Kamal Abdic, whom we know from Megan’s sections she was having an affair with. But the police drop him as a suspect and pursue Scott, whose short temper Rachel runs up against as well, causing her to doubt her initial conviction that he couldn’t have killed Megan. Meanwhile, Rachel’s continuing to turn up in the neighborhood, both to jog her memory at the crime scene and to help Scott, increasing the panic of Anna, who believes Rachel’s there to harass their family; Rachel’s continued drinking does little to help her credibility. It turns out Megan was pregnant when she died, but that the baby isn’t Scott’s or Kamal’s. Eventually, after talking to another guy she interacted with briefly at the station the night Megan disappeared, Rachel pieces together bits of memory–that it was Tom she got in an altercation with that night, who hit her, and who got in a car and left with Megan. Anna is discovering evidence of Tom cheating on her when Rachel comes to her with her suspicions. Then Tom shows up, and Rachel confronts him, causing her dynamic with Anna to shift from enemies to allies. After Tom eventually admits to killing Megan for getting too clingy in the course of their affair, Rachel manages to kill him with an appropriate weapon, one once emblematic of her weakness–a corkscrew.

Rachel’s narrative is alternated with that of two other first-person narrators, Anna and Megan, in a structure that almost resembles a French braid, though the primary strand the other two are wrapped around could be conceived of differently–Rachel’s could be the main thread for getting the most airtime, Megan’s and Anna’s smaller threads wound around its stabilizing core, or Megan’s past thread is the main one that Rachel’s and Anna’s present ones are wound around. These threads unspool the mystery of what happened to Megan, whose thread runs along a different timeline–Megan’s thread gives us what happens up to the point of her disappearance, while Anna’s and Rachel’s give us what happens after it. Megan’s thread, then, is imbued not with the tension of what happened–we know it will end in her violent death–but with the tension of discovering how and why she died. She tells her therapist-lover Kamal the terrible secret from her past her husband doesn’t know, that she had a baby with her boyfriend when she was still a teenager whom she fell asleep in the tub holding and accidentally drowned. When she gets pregnant in the present, she makes her climactic decision to come clean to Scott to do right by the baby and thereby make it up to the one she drowned:

I’m going to do the right thing. I’m going to do everything right. If I do everything right, then nothing can go wrong. Or if it does, it cannot be my fault.

Her logic turns out to be a wee bit problematic, because really the complete opposite will be true–doing this right thing is the critical choice that leads to her own death. (It’s also the choice that redeems her to the reader, that makes us sympathize with her even if she brought it all on herself.) When she tells Scott, he barely stops short of strangling her, and she leaves. When she tells Tom, he tells her to abort the baby because she’ll be a horrible mother, causing her to fly into a rage, to which he responds by bashing her head in, and the last thing she hears is his saying “Now look what you made me do.”

Megan’s past chronology unfolding alongside that of the present means the climactic chapters in the past and present threads come right next to each other toward the book’s end. It also means that Megan’s climactic chapter, her ending point, is the starting point of the other threads–we see the kiss that Rachel witnessed in the beginning, the event that leads to her continued involvement in the case, occur in Megan’s last chapter; there’s the added irony that the moment Megan’s deciding to do right is the same moment Rachel witnesses what will out her past transgressions–her kiss to Kamal to thank him. Alternating the threads of these timelines also enables Hawkins to heighten the tension of both threads individually by forcing us to wait even longer before a chapter’s cliffhanger is resolved. She’s effectively doubled the suspense. We’re being pulled along on two tracks.

My first fiction teacher Justin Cronin taught the traditional three-act model, with the perhaps more uniquely labeled concept of “plot points” ushering in the action of the second and third acts. In this novel, plot point one, ushering the action from the first act into the second, is Megan Hipwell’s disappearance. The trajectory of the action in the second act, which takes up the majority of the narrative, is to answer the question of who is responsible for her disappearance. Plot point two, ushering us from the second act into the third, is when Rachel figures out the answer to this question: Tom. The third act will answer the question of how the revelation of the killer’s identity will resolve itself. The answer: Tom’s death.

It’s hard to pull off a plot twist with new info that one of your first-person narrators already knew; the reader feels tricked, like if that narrator already knew it, we should have been told sooner. In Megan’s sections we see her having an affair with Kamal, but we don’t know anything about her affair with Tom until much later, when the pregnancy is revealed postmortem. If Hawkins does get away with this, she does so just barely. In the sections where we first see Megan cheating on her husband, the man she’s with isn’t named; later when it’s revealed she’s sleeping with Kamal the reader assumes he was the male pronoun she was sleeping with earlier, but she’s left the possibility open it was Tom. Other passages, like this one where Megan runs into Anna, has a whole new layer of meaning once you know Megan’s sleeping with Tom, which on first read, you don’t:

…as I turn the corner I see [Anna], coming towards me…. She looks at me and nods and gives me one of those weak smiles, which I don’t return. Usually, I would pretend to be nice, but this morning I feel real, like myself. I feel high, almost like I’m tripping, and I couldn’t fake nice if I tried.

The expositional explanation of how Megan’s and Tom’s affair started and how she suddenly found herself falling for him did feel a bit rushed. However, it’s nicely symmetrical narratively, if not quite proportionately–all three of the female narrators fall for Tom, the killer.

Personally I enjoyed the representation of the cycle of Rachel’s drunkenness and shame, and the distinctness of the female voices. Each had their defining trait–Rachel’s drunken desperation, Anna’s domestic security, Megan’s domestic discontent. But initially, a couple of things bothered me. I guess female writers rarely get accused of being sexist by default, but if Jonathan Franzen had written this plot, he might well have. (If he’d written Gone Girl, he definitely would have.) Rachel’s being a complete mess over not being able to have a baby bothered me; the entire basis of her self-worth and identity were predicated on making herself a part of the typical domestic unit. Though, sure, there are probably plenty of women who feel such things, and anyway, Rachel’s dedication to Tom is proven utterly ridiculous in the end, to her and to the reader, when he’s revealed to be a liar and a killer. So then I was bothered by her potential stupidity for believing she knew a man she didn’t at all, and loving him, which would then be a problem for all three of these female protagonists. But after thinking about it, the conclusion seems to show the violence and manipulation men are capable of, which would make this book an apt response to Gone Girl, where it was the woman who turned out to be the ultimately violent and manipulative one. But Hawkins’ Tom is more complex than Flynn’s Amy–someone who feels like a real man, any man, and not just a psychopath.

As an addendum to the sexism discussion, compare John Updike’s version of a woman accidentally drowning her baby in a bathtub in Rabbit, Run:

With a sob of protest she grapples for the child but the water pushes up at her hands, her bathrobe tends to float, and the slippery thing squirms in the sudden opacity. She has a hold, feels a heartbeat on her thumb, and then loses it, and the skin of the water leaps with pale refracted oblongs that she can’t seize the solid of; it is only a moment, but a moment dragged out in a thicker time. Then she has Becky squeezed in her hands…

A contorted memory of how they give artificial respiration pumps Janice’s cold wet arms in frantic rhythmic hugs; under her clenched lids great scarlet prayers arise, wordless, monotonous, and she seems to be clasping the knees of a vast third person whose name, Father, Father, beats against her head like physical blows. Though her wild heart bathes the universe in red, no spark kindles in the space between her arms; for all of her pouring prayers she doesn’t feel the faintest tremor of an answer in the darkness against her. Her sense of the third person with them widens enormously, and she knows, knows, while knocks sound at the door, that the worst thing that has ever happened to any woman in the world has happened to her.

to Hawkins’:

The room gets darker and darker until I’m there again, lying in the water, her body pressing against mine, a candle flickering just behind my head. I can hear it guttering, smell the wax, feel the chill of the air around my neck and shoulders. I’m heavy, my body sinking into the warmth. I’m exhausted. And then suddenly the candle is out and I’m cold. Really cold, my teeth chattering in my head, my whole body shaking. The house feels like it’s shaking, too, the wind screaming, tearing at the slates on the roof.

“I fell asleep,” I say, and then I can’t say any more, because I can feel her again, no longer on my chest, her body wedged between my arm and the edge of the tub, her face in the water. We were both so cold.

In both Updike’s and Hawkins’ renditions, the man had run out on the woman, leaving her to care for the baby alone, thus implicating the man in the baby’s death. But notably, in Updike’s version, the woman’s response to the man’s leaving is to get drunk, which is what causes her to then drown the baby, while in Hawkins’ version, the woman is not drunk, but tired because the man isn’t there to help her. Which version gives the woman a little more credit?  


One thought on “The Girl on the Train Runs on Multiple Narrative Tracks

  1. Pingback: A Sympathetic Nazi | the pva creative writing review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s