#8 – The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

SPOILER ALERT – This post has spoilers for Gone Girl – not for The Girl on the Train though, at least nothing major.

These days, no one can write fiction with female protagonists without making someone else very very angry. Men hate female characters who get the better of male characters – just look at the amount of vitriol directed against the admittedly-psychotic Amy in Gone Girl on online discussion forums while her male counterparts are lionized. The b-word was used in abundance to describe the character in reviews and articles. Women themselves feel that the portrayal of Amy as someone who is super-cray is damaging.

All in all, the feelings of both writers and readers towards these mysterious half-centaurs called women are conflicted and confused. Perhaps, the most accurate and succinct description of these feelings was provided by Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd when he says

“Ahh, women, eh? What are they, who knows? Can’t live with them, can’t find them sometimes. What’s going on in their little heads? Don’t ask me! I’m not a flippin’ women’s psychiatrist.”

In any case, the world of literature is now awash with best-sellers about “lost women” – unreliable narrators battling addiction, megalomania and abusive men. And I read the latest of these best-sellers yesterday in one 3-hour sitting.

Despite the inevitable comparisons, however,  The Girl on the Train is no Gone Girl. For one, the twist is rather predictable – nothing [SPOILER ALERT] like the whiplash of discovering Amy is alive halfway through Gone Girl. And Rachel, the chief narrator of the book is certainly no Amy. She is a drunk who cannot remember large chunks of the evening that would change several lives dramatically – which can be frustrating for her and the reader. But she also says a lot of things which sort of boil down to “I can’t remember a thing and this guy is super creepy but I just FEEL that he is good-natured deep down so he couldn’t have attacked me.” It’s the sort of lazy plot-hole that allows the book to be finished in a 3 hour sitting. But it’s also the sort of plot-hole that leaves the reader feeling vaguely annoyed. Surely, there are better ways to resolve a red herring.

But whatever its flaws, the book is entertaining. It’s the perfect read for a rainy afternoon – just the right length and exciting enough to stave off the urge to take an afternoon nap. The plot is interesting and the characters have rare moments of intense vulnerability and candor where the reader can’t help but feel sympathetic towards them.

Rachel’s self-destructive ways can be frustrating to read about before such sympathy is established however. Rachel is also quite creepy at the outset – obsessing over this couple she sees from her train window everyday – going so far as to give them imaginary names. However, she is also the underdog of the story – an unheroic and graceless underdog – but one you root for nonetheless. There’s just something about that weak tenacity that draws you in and wins her your begrudging sympathy, if not respect. I  found myself looking past the creepiness, past the weaknesses and her constant self-berating – at how incredibly human she was.

And perhaps, that’s  the thing that both readers and writers need to learn before writing or reading about women. That female characters don’t necessarily  have to choose between being damaged or resilient, vulnerable or indomitable, stupid or resourceful, frightening or fragile… They can be all these things and more all at once. Because humans – both male and female – can be all these things all at once. And at the end of the day, the most important test for a character is not whether he/she is likable or has agency or representative – all those things are incredibly important of course – but the most important test is whether you’ve written the character as though they were real  multi-dimensional individuals who could exist in our real multi-dimensional world. The way I see it – if a character can pass that test, representation and agency will follow.