When I’m commuting into work each day, usually my nose is stuffed into a book or my head is tilted down at a tiny smart phone screen. Some days though, I’m just not in the mood to absorb any more information. On those days, I just sit and stare out the window. Sometimes, I look at other passengers and try to decide little pieces of their life. Are they friendly? Are they married? Are they enjoing their life? Sometimes, I make awkward eye contact with another passenger and realise jarringly that I’ve become the object of another persons imaginings.
When reading The Girl on the Train, I never truly felt that she was realistically doing the actions I described above. Instead of a vacant gaze, her attention was always grabbed by a row of houses she had been waiting for, or by the bottle of gin tucked into her bag. The prose just never gave me the same feeling that wraps itself around me when I’m in a contemplative mood.
This book did. I felt like I was in the head of these individuals when all of these thoughts were swirling around them. When their eyes felt sticky and unfocused and they just couldn’t bear doing anything except looking out a window. It is a lonely, cosy, serene mood and it’s hard to write without making it come across as overtly sentimental or boring.
The book follows the WW2 experiences of those individuals connected to James, who is being held in a POW camp in Germany. His confinement creates ripple effects that travel across the ocean to England. His wife in England, Rose, is bored and lonely which culminates in an intense affair with a local soldier. His sister, displaced after her flat is bombed, takes refuge with Rose in the country. And closer to James, the Kommandar, hates the violence of the Nazi regime and tries to balance his authority with kindness.
The common thread amongst them all are the birds. And each character in some way finds comfort from them.
While this was a great book to read and I thoroughly enjoyed it, I felt strangely at a loss when thinking about it. I felt like I had briefly passed through the lives of the characters but in the end, their stories felt unresolved and strangely hollow. Due to the dearth of characters covered, I felt like no individual truly got their moment in the sun. Humphreys could have narrowed down the characters to create more focus. Opening and closing the story lines of so many individuals takes up a lot of the novel and so a surpisingly small amount is devoted to their actual story.
I did enjoy the characters that were introduced, particularly the Kommandant. His story line was the most intriguing to me, for very few WW2 novels focus on the POV of the ‘enemy.’ The way that he manages his authority and yet offers small acts of kindness to the prisoners really touched me and I would genuinely love to read a full novel about a character such as that.
However, his story line was unfinished. I had a brief, intriguing insight into his brain and then before I had settled into him as a person, I was thrust into another persons mind. While I did enjoy these alternative perspectives, in the end this lack of depth was to the detriment of the book. I finished the novel feeling underwhelmed and slightly frustrated, as the book definitely had the potential to be amazing if it had been more focused. People seem to feel this need with WW2 books to cover all aspects of the war and in the end forget about develping the characters thoroughly. They rely on the environment to shape the individuals and so don’t give the individuals the time to change their perspectives in an organic way.
Overall, I would recommend this book because it was a beautiful read. Humphreys has a delightful writing style and I loved the focus on nature. However, this book didn’t reach its potential and so, I was left with a distinct lack of closure.