Paula Hawkins’ Novels: The Girl on The Train/Into the Water
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Movies and TV shows used to be heavily influenced or inspired by books. Now things seem to have changed and it is the other way around. Bestselling authors will have probably sold the rights to the movie version of a book before even putting the first word down to paper. As a consequence, there are a number of formulaic devices – commonly seen in hundreds of horror movies and thrillers – which these writers tend to incorporate into their novels to make the transition from paper to screen more seamless. The plot – with its twists and cliffhangers – is king. Language choices, careful considerations of style and tone, and more in-depth analyses of what makes human beings tick have all become secondary in the process. Characters are also hardly tri-dimensional.
Effective authors, however, can get away with it, keeping us glued to the story, although more sophisticated readers may realize they’re probably using a preset template to write their books. Within the limitations these authors set themselves, they sometimes produce surprisingly powerful and relevant texts. This is certainly the case of Paula Hawkins’ novels. Both The Girl on the Train and Into the Water, her recently published domestic noir books, may not be great literature in the classic sense, but they are certainly undeniable page-turners.
Paula Hawkins was born in Zimbabwe and now lives in London. Having worked as a journalist for more than 15 years, her debut novel (the first under her own name), The Girl on The Train, has sold more than 18 million copies, in 50 countries, having been translated into over 40 languages. It was then inevitably turned into a major movie. That has set the bar too high and the pressure for the author to follow up with another successful novel is huge. Into the Water, her second book, is, however, bound to become another bestseller, as few of the fans of the first novel will resist reading the second.
Similarities and differences between the books
They’re both suspenseful novels, with compelling story lines, involving crime, substance abuse, and violence against women.
In The Girl on The Train, 32-year-old Rachel Watson has just been left by her husband and lost her job due to a serious drinking problem. She spends her days taking the train from Ashbury to Euston in the morning and coming back in the evening, trying to hide from her roommate the fact that she no longer is employed. From the train window, she usually sees an attractive young couple in the garden of their house near the tracks, whenever the train stops at a certain signal. She fantasizes about them, imagining they have the perfect life. Down the same street, she can also see the house she used to live in before. Her ex-husband Tom is now happily remarried to his former lover Anna, and they have a kid. Rachel cannot stand their happiness. Things turn unexpectedly dark when the attractive young woman she used to see from the train window goes missing and a police investigation gets started.
Into the Water is set in a small village in the middle of nowhere in the wild region of Northumberland, in the northeast of England. Over the centuries, local women seem to be tempted to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff into a special section of the murky river that cuts through the region. However, Nel Abbott, who used to live there as a child, goes back to the village with her teenage daughter to work on a project about these mysterious deaths. When she starts digging for information, asking questions and making discoveries, the secretive members of this quiet community get unsettled. Nobody seems to like her. Nel reaches the conclusion that the women who drowned in the river were not troubled but troublesome. Could they have been killed? Then Nel Abbott herself drowns and the police will need to investigate.
From Oliver Sacks, in Hallucinations:
We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars or preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.
The quote, used at the beginning of Into the Water, summarizes the main theme of both novels: the unreliability of memory and the different ways in which we perceive and interpret facts at different times in our lives. In the case of Rachel Watson, from The Girl on the Train, alcoholism may be the main cause of the distortions. In the novel Into the Water, earlier psychological traumas linked to physical and mental abuse are to blame.
Sexism, violence against women, desire, patriarchy and its unfair norms are also pervasive themes in both novels. However, the reader should not expect any in-depth discussions, as – important and relevant as those issues are – they are used here as a means to an end: the telling of an exciting story. They serve the plot.
In both novels, the use of short chapters that end with cliffhangers makes for easy and compulsive reading. Plot points are well marked and sharp twists veer the story in unsuspected directions. These devices also make the novels very cinematographic, with chapters working just like movie scenes.
A rotating style, in which each chapter is voiced by unreliable narrators (sometimes using the first person; other times, the third) is employed. However, while in The Girl on The Train we hear the story from the perspectives of three women, Into the Water has 11 narrative voices, which can make it hard for readers, at times, to follow the plot and distinguish who is telling what, especially because the voices are not markedly differentiated by the use of specific vocabulary, personal style, or levels of formality.
Trains and rivers
Of course, trains and rivers represent flux, mobility and psychological transformation. Water also has mythological associations with the subconscious, the hidden and the instinctive. All these connections and symbols play important roles in the plots of those novels. Trains and rivers also allow for the shooting of dynamic and visually compelling scenes, when the book becomes a movie.
Have you read The Girl on The Train? Have you read Into the Water? Share your opinion with us.
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