Is 'The Girl On The Train' the new 'Gone Girl'?
Everyone's talking about the debut thriller by Paula Hawkins, which is topping bestseller lists after only a month on the shelves. But is it as good as Gillian Flynn's cult classic?
Paula Hawkins' debut thriller The Girl On The Train hasn't even been out for a month yet, but already it is sitting at the top of the US bestseller list. That's no mean feat for the Zimbabwean author who had been writing fluffy romantic novels under a pseudonym and getting no where. Broke, and in desperate need of money, she sent a half-finished manuscript of The Girl On The Train to her agent. When a bidding war broke out, she knew she had something special on her hands.
The book is being described as Gone Girl meets Rear Window, which are dream marketing terms in the latest genre phenomenon that is chick noir. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, recently made into a film by David Fincher, became a word-of-mouth hit that just kept on selling. The success of the book highlighted a gap in the market, a Venn diagram that intersected on the areas of domestic life and violent crime.
The Girl On The Train tells the story of Rachel Watson. She takes the same commuter train at the same time every day. As the train whizzes past the commuter belt, Rachel watches the neat suburban houses lining her route to work in London. A faulty signal on the line means the train stops at the same location every day. Rachel likes to look at a couple in one particular house. She has even given them names - Jess and Jason. They are young, beautiful, apparently in love and they remind Rachel of happier times with her ex-husband Tom. Rachel tries to keep her eyes fixed firmly on Jess and Jason's house because just a few doors down is her former home, the place where her Tom now lives with Anna, his new wife, and their baby daughter, Evie.
One day, as the train comes to a halt, Rachel sees Jess, kissing another man. When Rachel sees Jess reported as a missing person on the news the next day, she wonders if what she has seen is important. The only problem is, Rachel is an alcoholic and her memories are tainted by blackouts, bad dreams and hallucinations. She is the ultimate unreliable narrator. The reader is constantly wondering, did that actually happen or is it a figment of Rachel's alcohol-fuelled imagination.
The unreliable narrator is an essential factor in the popularity of this new genre. In the Catfish generation, we are all aware that nobody is as they seem anymore. The ease with which we can live separate lives and create alter egos is extreme. The notion of an unreliable narrator no longer exists just in fiction, but in everyday life too. Which is what makes it so effective in novels like these.
Like Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train is written by a woman for women. And therein lies the success of the genre. In the same way that chick lit struck a chord with women by mining a rich seam in their lives - the quest for love and marriage - chick noir as it has been dubbed within the industry, has tapped into women's psyches in similar ways.
By bringing together female-centric themes such as love, marriage, and children with a thriller storyline, authors like Gillian Flynn have come up wtih a sort of vicarious worst-case scenario for female readers who have been raised in a world that teaches us to want careers, crave marriage and children, and to fear the bad man.
Women are primed to be afraid but we also love to get that thrill vicariously by reading thrillers. It's no surprise then that women are also responsible for some of the most grisly and gruesome crime fiction written.
In The Girl On The Train there is plenty of violence, much of it mysterious as Rachel wakes up from a bender. But there are also zeitgeisty female issues like infertility, and Sauvignon-Blanc alcoholism. And reading about marriage as something that might not be everything we were told it would be is a refreshing take on the institution after hundreds of years of 'the marriage plot', where marriage is seen as the ultimate goal, the happy ending to which we are told to aspire. In these books we get to look at controlling and suspicious partners snooping on each other's laptops and mobile phones, along with domestic violence and our gendered roles within modern marriage.
So is The Girl On The Train the new Gone Girl? Not by a long shot. It's nowhere near as sophisticated, but it is clever and it does contain the requisite twists and turns to keep you guessing, and, more importantly, to keep you reading.
Moreover, The Girl On The Train's new pride of place as the number one buzz book of the moment is indicative of a desire among women to read about the darker side of the female experience.
Take 4 must-read chick noir
THE SILENT WIFE, by Asa Harrison
It's not essential that your book has the word 'girl' in the title, but a female signifier will help. The Silent Wife was a sleeper hit after Gone Girl and looks at how far a couple will go to protect themselves.
BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, by SJ Watson
This deals with an amnesiac who is trying to figure out why she wrote a note to herself saying 'don't trust your husband'.
EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, by Celeste Ng
This was voted Amazon's book of the year and is a truly compelling tale of how a young girl's mysterious death tears her family apart.
It is Celeste Ng's debut crime thriller
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
After it made the New York Times besteller list, Gone Girl, which deals with the psychology of a long-term relationship, was made into a highly successful film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike who was Oscar nominated for the role.