Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Girl On The Train - Paula Hawkins


The book that's been impossible to avoid: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. For the last 12 months, every time anyone's stumbled into a Waterstone's (or WH Smith) mistaking it for some strange, new pub that's opened, this is the book that's been there on display. The biggest selling book of 2015, top of the New York Times hardback bestseller list, debuting at number one in book lists and holding the position for weeks and weeks, soon to be made into a film... Etc, etc.

In the face of such sales and the amount of words already given over to it on the Internet, it doesn't much matter what I think of it but for the record I think it's....
... a modern day, old-fashioned thriller concocted from bits and pieces from all kinds of thrillers; written in the same way as Quentin Tarantino makes films as in using different time lapses and different perspectives.
What I'm interested in, however, is the fact that it's such a successful book, clocking up sales going into the millions. What's its secret, I wonder? Well, it's not a difficult read at all and I suspect that helps. The chapters are short, there's a limited number of characters, a decent twist at the end, and though it tends to starts sagging around the two thirds mark, there's a momentum to it that keeps the reader engaged.
It is flawed, however, and the flaw that I see in it is a disturbing one though I'm unsure if many other readers have paid much if any heed to it?

The fact that none of the characters are particularly likeable is neither here nor there. The fact that they're all just as bad as one and other (apart from the killer, who's obviously a bit worse) and that they're all hypocrites and liars is probably just a literary device.
No, it was one particular line that leapt out at me that made me question this book's position in the real world and that line was: 'I liked my job, but I didn't have a glittering career, and even if I had, let's be honest: women are still only really valued for two things - their looks and their role as mothers. I'm not beautiful, and I can't have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.'

I understand that this is a work of fiction so a line such as this shouldn't be taken as representing the author's views but the problem is in the fact that throughout the whole book Paula Hawkins is going for realism, even to the extent of mentioning real life stories such as paedophile celebrities in the news and what not. So when she disempowers women in a single stroke through a line like this, you read it as another nod to realism within that realm of realism that's being created. You don't read it as a sudden lurch into fiction that has no bearing on reality.

If this particular line was thought to be a nonsensical one, a stupid one, an unrealistic one, would Paula Hawkins have planted it in her story? If this line was recognised as having no ring of truth to it in the slightest would Paula Hawkins have had it said by the main narrator? If Paula Hawkins thought no woman would ever think like this in this day and age, would she have had it included in the narrator's monologue?
I think not.
Would any woman reading this line flinch at it or would they not bat an eyelid and just keep on reading?
I would hope they might flinch.

And then it struck me: All the men characterised in the book are at best shallow, lieing, manipulative cheats and at worst they're monsters. The women, however, are worse because they're all in thrall to these men and define themselves through them. The men deceive their wives and lovers but the women deceive their husbands, their friends and themselves.

This is the dark flaw at the heart of the book and it's a political one. The fact that The Girl On The Train was written by a woman is no excuse. This is a very conservative, misogynistic and misanthropic book but for all that - paradoxically - it's still an enjoyable read because the substance of it is overshadowed by the style.
I don't want to spoil the party but this book has sold millions and I'm not sure that's a good thing?
                                                                                                                                                                              John Serpico

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