When I got home from today’s sessions, I looked at the movie trailer for the movie of this book which is due for release in October. Emily Blunt is perfectly cast as Rachel, the main character in the novel, a drunk whose life has spiraled down into an absolute mess. The highlight of her day is the daily commute on the train, fantasizing about the lives of the people who live in the houses the train passes twice a day, premixed gin and tonic in the bag at her feet. Until the day that as she passes, she sees something happen with a couple she has given a fantasy life to, setting her on a path that will actually give her a life back. Paula Hawkins and chair Nicky Pellegrino, were very careful in their discussions not to give too much away about the plot, as there were people in the audience who had not read the book.
Pellegrino’s approach to the session was to find out from Hawkins how she came to write this phenomenally successful novel. Originally a financial and business journalist, she became a novelist after she was commissioned to write romantic fiction – chick lit. She wrote four novels under a pseudonym, with declining levels of success, until, broke in finances and spirit, she made a last ditch attempt with a shift to the murder mystery thriller genre. Fascinated by female thriller writers such as Agatha Christie, PD James and Patricia Highsmith since her teen years, she was intensely interested in the psychology of why people under immense pressure end up doing terrible things to others. Not so much the depiction of physical violence, but the psychology of it. She said people don’t really want to read about happiness; it is far more appealing to explore one’s dark side in the safe space of a novel, taking us out of the everyday predictability of such things as the train commute.
She wrote frantically for the first six months, secreting herself away from the rest of the world, desperately aware that she had to make a success of this novel, or she may have to give up being a writer and find a real job again. So she says the novel is written with intensity and she was under no illusions that it would be a hit, although aware that parts of it, including her characterisation of Rachel, were actually very good. So success, when it came, was unexpected.
With Rachel, Hawkins tapped into her interest in the power of memory, how unreliable memory can be, and how the same thing or event can be remembered differently by those who saw or were a part of it. For Rachel of course, this is exacerbated and aided by her drinking problems, which has distorted and destroyed everything in her life. Rachel seems to have polarized readers, Hawkins saying that many people don’t like her at all. This was not her intention – to make an unlikeable person – but rather wanting to make a real person who actually wants to get out of the situation she has found herself in. There are many women out there whose lives have not panned out how they imagined they would – failed relationships, childless, dead end jobs, single mothers, large mortgages, and in our society, alcohol is an easy pit to fall into. When I read the book I don’t remember feeling judgmental towards Rachel, but sorry for her yes, and I certainly cheered her on when she starts the long journey to fix herself.
The reviews and commentary on this book have compared it to Gone Girl, and the rise of a new genre of writing which made this audience laugh – grip lit, or was it chick noir, or was it domestic noir? The use of the word ‘girl’ was also discussed. The book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sequels may well have started this trend, but Hawkins sees all of this as a massive coincidence: there is no similarity at all between any of the female protagonists. Gone Girl was a sociopath, in full control of everything she did, whereas Rachel is simply a lush who happens to stumble across a situation that she thinks needs sorting out. The media seems to love giving stuff labels, and in Hawkins’ words: “Would the media ever pigeon hole fiction written by men as ‘men’s fiction’ the way it labels books written by women as ‘women’s fiction’, or ‘chick lit’?”
She also talked a bit about the feminism backlash the book has received, but goes onto say that the subject of domestic violence, crime in the home, the realism of violence in our world, and relationships gone wrong are what the attention should be focused on, and not whether the title has a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’ in it.
The session was very thought provoking and it was so interesting to be taken behind the scenes of a novel that is so much more than just a psychological murder thriller.
The Girl on the Train: Paula Hawkins, Reviewed by Felicity Murray