Paula Hawkins’ debut novel is a psychological thriller, which shot to the top of the bestseller lists in January of this year. The central character, Rachel, commutes into London each day, and a regular stop at a signal allows her to observe one couple as they breakfast on their deck. She imagines the perfect lives of this couple, investing so much in them that she feels that she knows them. However all is not as it seems on the surface for anyone in the book, and as the story unfurls we discover more of what lies below the surface of all the characters.
The story is told from the perspective of the three main female protagonists – Rachel, Megan (the woman Rachel observes), and Anna (the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Richard). We quickly realise that Rachel’s life is in a mess, and that the street she is observing isn’t a neutral place for her – it is where she lived previously and Richard and Anna are living in her old home. She also has a problem with drink – to the extent that she has memory lapses and these are central to the story.
Rachel is the classic unreliable witness – because of her personal problems she isn’t taken seriously by the police, and she keeps interfering where she should really leave well alone. However although she deludes herself and misleads others the account of events through her eyes isn’t unreliable in the way that some first person narratives can be. Although Rachel is very flawed fundamentally she wants to pull herself together and her intentions are well meaning but lead to misguided actions. I could very much sympathise with the frustrations of her friend Cathy who does her best to help.
Trust, deceit and control are huge elements in the story – trust within marriages, trust of memory, deception of friends and family. Surface appearances are deceptive. Paula Hawkins writing is skilfully ambiguous. The story is told through a female perspective and all of the male characters (even Cathy’s boyfriend whom we don’t actually meet) seem to be controlling – as it progresses we realise quite how much memory and impression can be manipulated to undermine an individual’s sense of self.