My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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21 December 2017

The Girl On A Train, Unlikeable Characters and Gone Girl

Comparisons are odious as the old English saying goes. But it’s something people in the publishing industry are guiltier of than anyone else. Whether it’s commercial fiction blaring the name of a more popular writer in the genre: a pink packaged book with “the new Sophie Kinsella!” on it for example, or a horror book called “just like Stephen King”, they put things in little boxes making it easier for old readers to access, but maybe a little off-putting to the person who didn’t like Kinsella or King to begin with. 

Which brings us to the problem with The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins. Hawkins’ book is an energetic crime thriller, a narrator who isn’t quite what she seems to be, and that was enough to make her publishers think, “Hmm, who was popular recently? Oh, yes, Gillian Flynn!” So inevitably, her book got called “the new Gone Girl” which led a lot of people who loved the book and/or the movie to pick it up in great excitement. Which led to the downfall.

I’ve read almost all of Flynn’s work. I’m a fan. But Hawkins’ first book under her own name (her fifth in total, the other four were romantic romps under a pseudonym) is as apart from Gone Girl as say The Millenium Trilogy is from The Mockingjay Trilogy. In The Girl On The Train, Rachel, a narrator who you learn in the first few pages, is commuting to London from her flatshare in the suburbs every morning at the same time, looks out for a certain house on one of the train’s usual stops. In this house is a young couple, whose life seems idyllic to her—they sun themselves, they seem happy, they laugh, and she makes up names for them and invents a life.

You can tell quite early on that Rachel isn’t happy with her own life (the reasons, innumerable, are revealed later) and so the book has a crazy, vertiginous feel. The reader is in the head of someone not quite reliable, and as it is with point-of-view narrators, you only are given the story in the beginning through Rachel’s eyes. When she is revealed to be not what you thought she was, you feel as betrayed as she does, and yet Rachel with all her flaws is a more likeable, more relatable character than Gone Girl’s Amy. You might have Rachel for a co-passenger, you might even make some chit-chat with her, but with Amy, you’d probably be a little intimidated by her beauty and wit.

Of course, you don’t have to like the main character of a book. The “anti-heroine” is coming into full force, but while men almost crave the anti-hero (consider Walter White in the TV show Breaking Bad and how men across the globe both longed to be him or be around him), women find it almost personally insulting. Novelist Claire Messud was taken aback when an interviewer from Publisher’s Weekly asked her why her main character was so unlikeable in her novel The Woman Upstairs and said, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”

Which leads me to a deeper question: why do we read? Some of us do read to find friends, an idea that Messud thinks is ridiculous, but which is evidenced by how many feel-good pap novels still dominate the bestseller lists. When it comes to your average mystery reader, you read to feel engaged, to feel alive, goosebumps rising on your skin, your heart thumping as you stay awake till way past your bedtime just to find out who did it. In all this, it’s very comforting to have a main character who is as troubled by the mystery as you are, but who also figures it out two steps ahead of you, but sometimes, like in the case of The Girl On The Train, it’s also an interesting feeling to let go and let the novel take you where it will like an unmanned ship on a stormy sea. I will say this for both “Girls”, they give the reader the same sense of having your legs kicked out from under you: you think you know where you are until you don’t. You think you know this person whose head you’re inside until… well, until you don’t.

I do like that The Girl On The Train sort of conspires with us readers though. Rachel looking out from her train window and us, looking out through Rachel. Both of us realising that our version of the story isn’t the complete truth, but both of us wanting to believe it anyway.

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