Set in London, The Stranger on the Train is an apt title for this fast-paced thriller filled with malice and layer upon layer of troubling revelations. Taylor constructs a standout tale whose opening chapters give the reader a hint of the tension to come. More than comfortable with the bent psychological pathways of an anxious single mother, Taylor deconstructs and reassembles a lonely, emotionally littered life that is turned upside down when a child is suddenly stolen.
Emma Turner knows there’s something sinister about the sound of a train approaching through the tunnel of London’s Underground, but she can’t quite put her finger on how this sound will be a harbinger of things to come. For only a brief moment, she lets go of her thirteen-month-old son, Ritchie, who in turn runs into an empty carriage. The doors close, there’s a slight sideways jerk, and Emma’s heart pounds. She races to catch the train, hanging onto Ritchie’s harness even as a woman mouths the words that Emma needs to hear: “next exit.”
In these opening pages, Taylor captures the essence of Emma’s panic and her sense of helplessness. At the next stop, the woman—Antonia—offers to calm Emma with a cup of coffee, “her treat.” Emma knows Antonia is being tactful, but she feels beaten down, weary, and unexpectedly overwhelmed at the idea of someone being kind to her. Emma can tell that Antonia thinks she’s stupid for leaving her baby on a train. Still, sitting in the café just down the street from the station, Emma’s notices something funny about Antonia, “something about her ”superior attitude.” Emma’s done a good job minding Ritchie on her own, and she’s not used to be judged.
Taylor doesn't rely on simple cat-and-mouse tension. Instead, she masters an unpredictable world, a cold, dark place where even the reader is capable of extreme acts. Tragedy strikes, and Ritchie is gone, forcing Emma to learn the hard lesson that in this city, the only person you can depend upon is yourself. Sluggish and strangely confused, Emma has a vague memory of shouting things at a crowd of people. With the cotton-wool veil over her and her mind split by great, jagged tears, her incredible story tumbles out to the authorizes: Ritchie scrambling onto the train before the doors closed, his wide little face aglow with triumph.
Back at her council flat in Hammersmith, Emma is cross-examined by DI Ian Hill, the senior investigating officer in the case who is at first reluctant to believe Emma’s story, or that she even has a child. While Lindsay, the kindly family liaison officer, takes Emma under her wing, it’s really only compassionate Rafe who offers to help Emma unravel the mystery of Antonia’s whereabouts. Emma wants Rafe to think well of her but is afraid he will see her for what she really was.
The bustling streets of central London and the beautiful French countryside lend a deceptive aura to a thriller seething with repressed emotions and sudden violence. From the lights and noise and smells of Fulham Road, where the smells pour from the pubs and restaurants, Taylor unfolds her thriller in psychotic flashback, telling of Emma’s impoverished life as a single mother, all alone in the world after being dumped by her boyfriend and her best girlfriend. There is no world-building here, none of fiction’s contrivances for separating the reader's world from that of the characters.
Emma’s horror at missing Ritchie is counterbalanced with Taylor’s exploration of motherhood: What makes a woman good mother? And what are the triggers that cause a seemingly average woman to kidnap a child? Taylor delights in surfacing the unsettled forces that lurk inside the average person, in this case a seemingly kindly woman on a routine train journey.
On the trail to find Ritchie, Emma and Rafe build an intimacy that reveals their private passions and disappointments. Not surprising that Rafe’s desire to travel and spread his wings is waylaid by Emma’s obvious suffering. While at times I thought the novel was predictable, Taylor writes a compelling thriller with a suspenseful plot that finds a reasonably good balance between family drama and the external threats to a woman who overnight finds herself descending ever deeper into a flurry of despair.