[Book Review] The Girl On The Train

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This has been compared again and again to Gone Girl, a book which, in my opinion, is cheesy as hell, but about as thrilling as it gets.

It is, however, no Gone Girl. The Girl On The Train (Paula Hawkins, 2015, 325 pages, Riverhead Books) starts with the same premise: nothing is what it seems, people are deceiving, a crime that gets weirder and weirder. Unlike Gone Girl, though, there isn’t a single charismatic bone in any of the character’s bodies: everyone is about as unlikable as it gets, including the main narrator, Rachel. People don’t even act like normal people, doing things just for the sake of the plot, making it difficult for the reader to truly immerse themselves into the story.

It also alternates chapters between characters, which is a great way to keep a thriller’s pacing frenetic, as we’ve been shown again and again by Dan Brown, for example. A technique that is basically incapable of not working in a crime book fails to work here, for the very simple reason that the author doesn’t understand that, in order for a reader to actually crave that narrator’s next chapter, you pretty much need a cliffhanger by the end of every single one. Just read any Brian K. Vaughan comic book and you’ll see how effective that can be.

And the ending, oh, the ending. You can see it coming from about a third into the book, which means everything that comes afterwards should be a balls to the walls collection of crazy events, something that Gone Girl does very effectively. Yet the same patterns are repeated, characters keep doing stupid things just so they can come back to bite them in the ass and deliver a dozen more pages, everyone involved is completely oblivious to basically everything you’ll have picked up a hundred pages before.

As if the predictability weren’t frustrating enough, by the time the book reaches its climax it goes on and on and on, repeating things again and again, in such an annoying way that it is an actual relief to get to the end of it. If the reader already knows who did it, you might as well give them something really crazy, thrilling and unexpected to hang on to later. The comparison keeps showing up, but isn’t that what Gone Girl does most effectively?

Of course, it still is good enough to keep you going until the end. But let’s face it: if you have limited hours of reading in your life, you should probably be spending them on something that is better than a “good enough” book.

[Book Review] Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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Action movies have led many of us to believe that espionage is the combination of explosions, soft killings, six-packed agents and the thrill of the chase.

Reality is, however, a bit less exciting. Hell, a lot less exciting. Reality is, most of the time, about making sense of what seems like tons of meaningless information in order to find patterns – and while that doesn’t sound exactly like a blockbuster movie on the make, it sure can translate well into a novel when the job is well done.

That is precisely what Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (John le Carré, read on paperback, Sceptre, 448 pages) is all about. The plot follows George Smiley, an MI6 (or “Circus”, as it’s referred to throughout the book) agent, in his attempt to find a mole that, during the Cold War, is on the high ranks of the British Intelligence while feeding the KGB with inside information.

I find it necessary to make something very clear to anyone interested in reading TTSS: the book is boring. Yes, boring. Not only because it moves slowly, but because it is subtle in every discovery, making the readers wonder if they have correctly understood what has just happened. Every revelation is a small victory and you have to pick the pieces throughout the book in order to make sense of what has happened in the past, so don’t expect crazy-running-around-solving-clue-after-clue Dan Brown action. You won’t have any of it.

It is, however, absurdly satisfying. The fact that it is slow means the reader has a chance to read with Smiley and watch him as he finds every tiny secret that leads to the climax. I am still quite intrigued by how it can be such a good read when it’s so – again this word, but there really is no other – boring. The final result is delicious, just as solving a puzzle or winning a game is, because the process is so realistic it makes you crave for the discovery just as much as Smiley does.

Smiley is a portrait of the modus operandi used to find the mole and tell the story: slow, simple, kept-together, unpretentious, but highly intelligent. Smiley is a boring, gray, sad character, which only makes his surname more brilliant. You will root for Smiley as you would root for a stray dog as you watch him do tricks you wouldn’t expect him to know. No one is better to spy on spies than a man who doesn’t look like one at all.

This is, in the end, a great, great book. The story, once one finishes reading it, is perceivably well plotted – it gives neither the annoying feeling that the author kept all the secrets to himself, which ruins plot twists, nor the chance to figure it all out with a fifth of the book read. Beautifully written, the reader immerses himself into Smiley. And what else could be more explosive than to feel, for once, like you are actually a spy?