The “train novel” would seem to belong to the literary past: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and the peripatetic protagonists of Edith Wharton and Graham Greene have shown us the narrative treasures of rail travel, but does the once-new mode of transport still have a place in today’s fiction?
Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train says it does. The story follows Rachel Watson, a miserable divorcée who, on her daily train commute from suburban Oxfordshire to London, peers masochistically at the rear of her former home, where her ex-husband lives with his new wife, as well as at another house nearby, in which a couple, “Jess” and “Jason” (as Rachel dubs them), lead what appear to be idyllic lives. It’s from this vantage that Rachel glimpses an infidelity that sets into motion a high-stakes domestic mystery—one in which Rachel, increasingly under the influence of alcohol, comes to play an active role.
Hawkins, who worked for many years as a journalist, says she’s always been a fan of the mystery genre but maintains that her novel is less a detective story than a psychological thriller. “There’s an atmosphere that I wanted to create that I admired in a lot of books,” she says. She cites novels such as Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep as influences. “They’re not necessarily what we would call ‘thrillers,’ but [they have] a slightly creepy, suspenseful feeling... that I wanted to imbue.” Hawkins also used as a model Hitchcock’s film Rear Window, which hinges on acts of domestic espionage. “Girl is really about the voyeuristic nature of that city commute,” Hawkins says.
DreamWorks has optioned Girl for adaptation to film. This news, along with some favorable early reviews, including a starred review from PW, has positioned the book to become one of the big debuts of 2015.
Lizzy Kremer, Hawkins’s agent at David Higham Associates, maintains that the book has surprises in store for readers. “A lot of recent psychological thrillers have been essentially domestic—warped versions of stable relationships,” she says. “Rachel is no wife living in fear of her husband. She is a lot closer to crisis than most heroines, much closer to falling down the cracks.”