Before it became the bestselling novel in Canada – a publishing juggernaut that has burned through seven printings in fewer weeks than that – The Girl on the Train was an unread e-mail waiting in Kristin Cochrane's inbox. It was July, 2013, and the e-mail was from the publisher at Transworld, Britain's largest fiction publisher. They had just acquired world English-language rights to a book they thought Cochrane, Random House of Canada's president and publisher, might be interested in, though calling it a "book" is generous: At the time, The Girl on the Train consisted of roughly 45,000 words and an outline detailing the rest of the novel. Cochrane shared the submission with several colleagues and, by the end of the month, had signed Paula Hawkins, a financial-journalist-turned-author who had never published a novel under her own name, to a two-book deal.
"The Brits use this expression that I love: It ticks so many boxes," says Cochrane of the moment she read the finished manuscript last summer. "What she pulled off was so much beyond the elevator pitch of the book, and that's why we're seeing such quick word of mouth, such strong success out of the gate."
That might be an understatement. Despite going on sale Jan. 6, there are already more than 135,000 copies of The Girl on the Train in print in Canada, and the novel has topped the fiction bestseller list in this newspaper for the past four weeks. (This doesn't include e-book sales of more than 10,000 copies.) It is only February, but the novel – a riveting study of voyeurism and a lesson on why appearances are often deceiving, told by a trio of unreliable narrators – might just end up being the blockbuster of 2015. The book's reception, says Cochrane, is "unlike anything we've seen in a long time." Even Stephen King has done his part, recently tweeting that the novel "[k]ept me up most of the night" – the accolade that seems to have impressed Hawkins the most.
"I was taking pictures of the screen and sending it to everyone I know," says Hawkins, who was in Toronto on Super Bowl Sunday as part of a two-week North American tour. (The novel is doing brisk business in the United States as well, with a reported 500,000 copies in print and film rights already snapped up.)
All this for a novel Hawkins, 42, describes as "the last roll of the dice."
She was at a crossroads. A career journalist who turned to fiction at the suggestion of her literary agent (she'd also published a financial guide for women, The Money Goddess, in 2006), the Zimbabwe-born, London-based Hawkins wrote four works of commercial women's fiction between 2009 and 2013 under the pen name Amy Silver: Confessions of a Reluctant Recessionista, All I Want for Christmas, One Minute to Midnight and The Reunion.
"Three of those books had done fine," she says. "The last one just sank without a trace."
So she began a new novel, this one a thriller. It was centred on a woman "rendered unreliable by her problems with drink," a character who'd been floating around in her brain for several years. (Hawkins started – and abandoned – several thrillers while in her 20s and 30s: "Those are all sitting on a hard drive somewhere," she says. "I should go back and look at them.") It is uncommon for agents to submit a partial manuscript to a publisher unless the author has a proven track record, but Hawkins was rather impatient. "It wasn't a perfect way to do this," she says. "To be perfectly frank with you, I was broke and I couldn't afford to wait until I finished the book to get a deal. I needed some sort of income, and my agent thought the first half was very strong."
Another understatement. The novel's opening chapters barrel forward like an express train. A Rashomon-like narrative, it tells the story of Rachel, a thirtysomething alcoholic who wishes she was living a life other than her own. Each day she commutes from the suburbs into London, and each day her train stops at a crossing, where, for a brief moment – a minute, maybe two – she can see into the backyard of a house belonging to a young couple she's nicknamed Jess and Jason, who seemingly possess everything missing from her own life. One morning, when the train stops, Rachel spots "Jess" embracing a different man. The next day, Jess disappears.
"The premise grabbed me instantly, and Rachel's voice pulled me in from line one," says Sarah Adams, Transworld's publishing director and Hawkins's editor, in an e-mail. "The concept is so tangible – this idea that any one of us could glance out of the window and see something we shouldn't have seen. That a simple, split-second decision could send our perfectly normal life spiralling out of control. Or, to switch perspective, the idea that the person sitting opposite us on our commute is not at all what she seems. …"
Indeed, the woman Rachel obsesses over, whose name is actually Megan, has deep-seated issues of her own, which come out in flashbacks that chronicle the year before she goes missing. (The third narrator is Anna, who is married to Rachel's ex-husband and – suspect alert! – lives down the street from Megan.)
"The Girl on the Train is intense, and it's in an Internet sense 'shareable,'" says Bahram Olfati, senior vice-president of print at Indigo Books and Music. "By that I mean, once you read it you want your friends to read it too so you can talk about it. Once a book becomes viral like that, there's no slowing it down." (The Girl on the Train was an Indigo "spotlight" pick in January, while earlier this week the chain's CEO, Heather Reisman, announced it would be a February "Heather's Pick," a decision certain to drive sales even higher.)
The novel has also likely been helped by the incessant comparisons with Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's 2012 thriller which helped spark a resurgence in the genre sometimes called "domestic noir." While Hawkins is "immensely flattered" by the comparison, she says "it also feels uncomfortable, to some degree.
"It would be nice were it able to be judged on its own merits," she says. "I think a lot of people have tired of hearing 'What's the next Gone Girl?' Maybe we can move on from Gone Girl."
The irony is, if the novel continues to sell the way it has, in a year or two publishers will be marketing new novels as the next The Girl on the Train.
"It's a book that delivers," says Cochrane. "It's a book that people want to talk about. I think the word of mouth is just going to get more significant. We are going to be looking at every possible way to keep this going."