On the best seller list since January, I am again, a tad late with the upkeep (partly because I wait for the softbound and am yet to capitulate to Kindle). Nevertheless, the irony that I began reading this book on a flight to South Africa, written by a Zimbabwean, now living in London, sharing a commute on the District Line, did not escape me.
The District Line; the one with two options, is my life line to the city. The stature of a beloved aunt, not always spot on, not always the most topical, but always there. It is the chugging of the old, green reliable to Upminster (with the party seats that face forward, offering a view, which I think Rachel may favour also) or the slick new Edgware Road slider, and do we feel differently as we enter the different trains?
My first reaction to Rachel’s messed up character and willing release into the plot of the book was; your own fault. But then Rachel has many faults, she is the antithesis of the heroic central figure. Young and hopelessly depressed, in a job she can barely hang onto, largely due to the hangovers she inflicts upon herself daily, this woman is spiralling out of control. Life is aimless, it hurts. Endured from rock bottom. Rachel is not the person you want to have sitting next to you on the train.
The pattern of her daily commute, often delayed, takes Rachel past the street she used to live in, now seen from the backyards lined up against the rails. People become familiar, number 23 a reminder her once married life, now occupied by Tom and his new wife, Anna. Drawn to one particular couple in number 15, Rachel gives them names she favours, and imagines how their lives are played out. It passes the time. Until ‘Jess’, who is actually Megan, disappears.
The theme is not new. From a train, from a train, but what is so captivating are the themes of modern London, of urban survival and the messiness, the ugliness of life in general. How Anna, Megan and Rachel become entwined with each other. The men in their lives. The disappearance.
Rachel is convinced she can help, that she has witnessed a key moment that could aid the investigation, only her own worthiness as a witness, or person, is in question. Alcoholic stupor, vague memories, accusations follow. The woman is a stalker, meddlesome, unreliable. And she knows that she holds the key to the riddle, only she cannot remember anything. Hawkins does not hold back with Rachel. Urine soaked panties, vomit on her friends staircase, the term ‘letting go’ can be ascribed to practically every facet of Rachel’s life.
In contrast, Rachel believes, the new wife, Anna, and the gorgeous Megan, have the perfect life. Where she is one step from the gutter, they have achieved suburban nirvana, all the boxes ticked, and it is as the story unfolds, that she discovers even they are dodging the tide, hiding secrets; even they are fallible.
Hawkins has taken a thread of our daily lives, and like Hecuba before her cauldron, added tenets of a good story, and tossed it into a plot that delivers. It is a human story, laced with possibility and the frightening reality that one is never quite alone in a city, and yet loneliness is so prevalent, so debilitating.
We are all in love with the city, all fractured by life’s harsh realities, but mostly all in need of belonging, and of being loved. Rachel has lost her love, and nearly her life, but what I love about this book, is that she is no hero, she is just someone you know.
Looking forward to her next book.
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