The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: A Clinic on How to Use Scent in Novel Writing

PaulaHawkinsSlider-1024x716PerfumeI finished a book proposal and sent it off to my agent last Friday and celebrated with some real mind candy: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

It’s a debut novel that’s been earning comparison’s to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl
for the way it plays with readers’ expectations and works the unreliable narrator angle to fuel its pace.

To my great delight, it is also one of the smelliest books I’ve encountered (highly welcome, considering I’m reading it on a  Kindle Paperwhite).

Here’s the story: Thirty-something divorcee Rachel rides the same train into London every day, past the same rows of houses. In her vast and gloomy imagination she has concocted a backstory for one of the couples she sees over the fence from the train. She calls them Jason and Jess, and to her, they are living the perfect life. Until one day, when she see a scene in the backyard that makes no sense, something that will get her involved in Jason and Jess’s lives and that of another couple down the street.

The Girl on the Train is like going to a tarot card reading. Each new bit of information changes everything. Told through the alternating voices of Rachel, Megan (Jess) and Anna, Rachel’s husband’s new wife, the novel asks what terrible things can happen when the grief of moving on with your life means getting entangled in another person’s story.

Oh, and it’s a murder mystery. But honestly, I find the murder ancillary — to me, this book was all about the psychology of voyeurism and the danger in wanting something other than what you already have.

And also, it was about scent. I did a little search and discovered there are at least 36 references to smell in this this novel, which is about 32 more than most books I’ve read lately. I would go as far to say that this book is a clinic on how to use scent properly in novel writing. She even has a psychiatrist in the book chiming in on how important smell is:

“Smell is particularly important when it comes to recall. Music can be powerful, too. If you are thinking of a particular circumstance, a particular day, you might consider retracing your steps, returning to the scene of the crime, as it were.”

Not all of the references are instructive, and some give important details of the book you shouldn’t know before you read it, so I’ve taken a great effort to hold back game-changing details. However, if you don’t like to know anything before you read your thrillers, go read it now and come back!

Scent in The Girl on the Train

Because scent is associated with a specific emotion for each of the three narrators, I’m going to separate them out and see what these scent markers says about them.


Rachel, though not the exclusive narrator, is our way into the story, so it makes sense that she is the character gifted with the highest number and most specific olfactory details in The Girl On the Train. She struggles with alcoholism, but in the moments when she is most coherent, when she is playing detective and trying to suss out what exactly happened to her during her drinking binges, the author often places some sensory cues to show her clear-mindedness.

Rachel, feeling remorse after a binge:

  • “There was blood on the chopping board, the room smelled of raw meat, the steak was still sitting out on the counter top, turning grey.”
  • “We were standing in the hallway, which, despite my best efforts with the bleach, still smelled a bit sick.”
  • “The room is warm; it smells terrible, rank and sour — I’ve barely left it since Thursday

Rachel, on visiting Scott (Jason). Several times she visits him and his emotional state is described through how Rachel interprets his scent.

  • “He smelled of old sweat, and his dark hair was matted against his head as though he hadn’t showered in a while.”
  • “There was a sharp smell of antiseptic in the room, but Scott himself was a mess, a sweat patch on the back of his T-shirt, his jeans hanging loose on his hips as though they were too big for him.”
  • “The heat in the room seemed to build suddenly, the smell of antiseptic rising from every surface. I felt faint.”
  • “The house was less tidy than it was a week ago, the disinfectant smell displaced by something earthier.”
  • “He’s cut himself shaving: there’s blood on his cheek and on his collar. His hair is damp and he smells of soap and aftershave.”
  • “The first thing I noticed when he opens the door is the smell. Sweat and beer, ran and sour, and under that something else, something worse. Something rotting.”

Rachel, on trying to figure out what she has done during a binge:

  • “The hairs are standing up on the back of my neck. I can smell aftershave under cigarette smoke and I know that I’ve smelled that scent before.”
  • “It’s erotic to me, that smell; it reminds me of being happy.”
  • “There’s no one there, of course, and the flat is empty, too: it feels untouched, it smells empty, but that doesn’t stop me checking every room — under my bed and under Cathy’s, in the wardrobes and the closet in the kitchen that couldn’t conceal a child.”
  • “So when I closed my eyes, when I drifted into a half dream and found myself in that underpass, I may have been able to feel the cold and smell the rank, stale air, I may have been able to see a figure walking towards me, spitting rage, fist raised, but it wasn’t true.”

On wanting her ex-husband back:

  • “He leans across then, and I can hardly breathe, I want to touch him so badly. I want to smell his neck, bury my face in that broad, muscular gap between his shoulder blades.”

On letting go:

  • “Swifts are swooping low in the sky, and I can smell the rain coming. I love that smell.”



For Megan, who harbors a terrible secret and who throws herself into dangerous situations in order to feel something, anything at all, scent can be an an indicator of disgust — with the situation at hand, with herself, with her past.

Megan, after leaving her job as a nanny:

  • “When I leave their house I run home, can’t wait to strip my clothes off and get into the shower and wash the baby smell off me.”

As a marker of her sexuality and marital indiscretions:

  • “That smell of cold and damp always sends a little shiver down my spine, it’s like turning over a rock to see what’s underneath: Moss and worms and earth.”
  • “The room is dark, the air close, sweet with the smell of us.”
  • “He doesn’t touch me, but our bodies are close, I can smell his scent, clean in this dirty room, sharp and astringent.”

From a memory of regret:

  • “I can hear it guttering, smell the wax, feel the chill of the air around my neck and shoulders.”
  • “I’d just walk around those dark rooms and I’d hear her crying, I’d smell her skin.”



We don’t hear much of Anna’s voice in this novel, in part because she isn’t the main agent of change or action. But when we do, we sense she is in as much danger as some of the other characters, and equally disturbing. I found only one reference to scent in her passages, which highlights that she is a particularly cold and calculating figure.

On being afraid:

  • “I can smell the beer on his breath. “Have you been up to no good?”” [he says].

Did you read this Tarot Card Reading of a novel? Did you notice the scent details? I’m always on the lookout for writers who use scent effectively, so if you know of any, pass them along!

3 thoughts on “The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: A Clinic on How to Use Scent in Novel Writing

  1. gina amos says:

    I really enjoyed this book, so much so that I’ve read it twice. Thank you for this post it goes a long way in illustrating the power of the senses in writing. Good luck with your book proposal!


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