By Laura Galante
Rachel enjoys train rides. Her life might not be enviable, but she finds solace in observing that one house in the neighborhood at the edge of the train tracks and fantasizing about the perfect couple who lives there every time she passes by it. Until she realizes that her fantasies are very different from reality. From the first sentence, we see the world through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, a very unstable mind who is severely affected by alcoholism. Through her eyes, the reader immediately becomes immersed in her experiences, the loss fuelled by a traumatic past and a will to reconcile with it by reacquiring a sense of purpose. Throughout the novel Hawkins threads three parallel stories into each other while still being able to keep the reader alert equally on all of them. There is not a single story that hinders the story’s flow, and as the reader delves into each character, they realize that those individuals considered benign also have an unstable mind of their own, and there is no clearly defined binary between those who are “good” and those who are “bad”, which makes them morally ambiguous.
Hawkins is also dexterous in avoiding cliché twists and turns, but is still able to surprise the reader in its unraveling. While this may appear a classical whodunit plot, which may very well resemble your average police case, it also significantly diverges from one in many ways. As opposed to a traditional Agatha Christie scenario, here less characters are involved, but their development is palpable. The reader’s allegiance to each one constantly shifts as more and more secrets are uncovered, until the task of distinguishing a character with whom we can identify becomes arduous. It is this uneasiness throughout the novel that keeps the reader on edge, as they slowly begin to lose trust in those characters that come along the way. An overall theme emerges throughout the story, namely that appearances are not what they seem. It is something that the protagonist(s) learn along the way, and it is something that is constantly reaffirmed to the reader throughout the story.
While the binary between the morally good and bad is blurred, that between the roles of man and woman isn’t. Throughout the story, there is a stark contrast between the men who are expected to provide and the women who adopt a more submissive role. This binary is all too present as the plot unravels, and seems to be the source of a lot of the issues that arise. Family relationships are destabilized because of an overly dominant father, or women who strive to conform to the traditional family lifestyle while at the same time struggling to make something of themselves. Many of such ideals explored in the story could appear somewhat static and even banal, but it is the way in which we see them through unreliable eyes that allows for a different interpretation and reassessment of the familiar struggle. Lastly, while the story gradually builds up the suspense that accumulates, the ending feels rushed and does not quite encapsulate those themes explored into a proper tie-up of all the different stories. Nonetheless, the breath is not released until the very last page.