?? Using An Unreliable Narrator in a Novel, an essay by Bill Johnson
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About the Author

Using An Unreliable Narrator In a Novel

Notes on Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train


by Bill Johnson

I saw the movie before I read the novel. My observation about the movie was that having a main character who is a black out alcoholic who can't remember a key event made the film feel diffuse until a late reveal. I also had to expend energy to track two similar looking characters and a shifting time line. I wondered how the novel was different.

The main difference between the movie and novel is that the novel allows readers to feel more connected to and even invested in what happens to Rachel, the alcoholic, Anna, who married Rachel's ex, and also develop the character of Megan, who is killed early in the novel's time line.

At the beginning of the novel, Rachel is an unemployed alcoholic who rides a train that goes past the home of her ex-husband and his current wife and new baby. It also goes past the nearby home of a young couple who Rachel gives names and an imaginary, idealized marriage.

Rachel rides the train into London to hide from her housemate/landlord that she has lost her job due to her drinking.

With the failure of her marriage and her advancing alcoholism, Rachel devalues herself. 'I am no longer the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I'm off-putting in some way...it's as if people can see the damage written all over me.'

This raises a question, can Rachel change into a healthier person? It doesn't seem likely, with her heavy drinking and her unwanted late night calls to her ex-husband Tom.

Chapters in the book alternate between Rachel, Megan and Anna. Megan is the young married woman Rachel idealizes from the train. In real life, Megan has a strained marriage, a deep wound, and she's baby-sitting for Anna and Tom for something to do to pass the time while she considers getting pregnant with her husband Scott. Or leaving him. Or reopening an art gallery. Megan is a hot mess.

Rachel on the train sees Megan kissing a stranger. Soon after she wakes with her hair matted with blood and a headache and she has a vague memory that something terrible has happened near a railroad underpass.

This is the set up for the novel's plot. Megan has disappeared and her hot-tempered husband Scott is a suspect. Rachel has her vague memory that while drunk she saw her ex Tom with his new wife, Anna, near the train station. Something happened to injured Rachel, but what?

When Megan's body is found, her husband is the main suspect.

The structure of the novel alternates with chapters for Rachel who tries to inject herself into Scott's life by saying she was a friend of Megan's and she saw Megan kissing another man; Rachel being at Scott's home putting her near the home of ex Tom and Anna; Anna's panic at Rachel's continuing intrusion into her life after she took Rachel's place in Tom's life; and chapters in the past from Megan's POV that steadily advance toward her secret past and ultimately the cause of her death.

These chapters set out that Megan has an unidentified lover and wants to leave Scott.

To go with the central plot question around Megan's death, there is the ongoing issue around the lies the characters are telling each other. Rachel hiding from her housemate that she's lost her job; Megan concealing her past from both her husband and therapist; Anna beginning to doubt the lies Tom is telling her about Rachel.

The narrative tension of the novel is amplified by...

Rachel's increasing drinking and the problems it creates with her housemate;

The detectives investigating Megan's death revealing to Scott that Rachel lied about her knowing Megan;

We learn Rachel felt her inability to get pregnant doomed her marriage;

Megan's therapy taking her forward to revealing what caused a deep wound in her life, that she had a child when a teenager and the baby drowned through her inattention.

It is the chapters with Megan and the slow reveal of who her lover is that drive the plot forward, even though in terms of a time line she's already dead. The main question that is ultimately answered is that Tom was her lover and that he killed her because she was pregnant and wanted him to go away with her.

While this is happening late in the novel, Tom tells Anna he's going to the gym when he is really meeting Rachel and he forgets to take his gym bag with him. She finds a second cell phone that recorded calls from Megan. Anna now confronts the truth that Tom was having an affair with Megan.

Rachel finally regains her memory...that it wasn't Tom and Anna she saw the night that Megan disappeared, but Megan and Tom. This would lead detectives to focus on Tom as the main suspect in Megan's death.

When Tom returns home, he tries to regain control over Anna and dispose of Rachel, but he is struck in the neck with a corkscrew wielded by Rachel. Anna makes sure he dies by twisting the corkscrew deeper into his neck.

All three women have lives that revolved around the charming Tom and the lies he told about himself and his past.

Again, what drives the plot forward are the chapters with Megan and the slow reveal that Tom was her lover and the cause of her death, but a subtext that runs through the novel is how the desire for having children affects the three women characters. Each finds herself carrying tremendous emotional weight about not being able to give birth, giving birth in a way that failed with a baby's death, or having a baby and realizing that doesn't save a bad marriage.

The narrative tension in the novel then is not just about what happened and why but the narrative tension at the center of each character's inner life. As the novel progresses, we get deeper and deeper into each character's inner tension.

It is these emotional currents of the women that make the novel vibrant and engaging and are the strength of the story, but which are internal and harder to convey in a film. We have many scenes of Rachel trying to hide or minimize her drinking and lies from her housemate, but these are a small part of the movie.

Hawkin's skillfully writes to make the past and present collide in a way that draws reader's forward to the novel's resolution and fulfillment. She allows us to fully share the inner lives of her characters.

At novel's end, Rachel is twenty days sober and facing the choice of having a new life for herself or slipping back into an alcoholic fog. It is a tenuous victory for herself that the reader's share.

"> Copyright 2017 Bill Johnson