A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

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With her new book, A Slow Fire Burning, Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, has once again created an intriguing plot with enough twists and turns for the most demanding mystery fan. Hawkins’ novel is told from an omniscient point-of-view, emphasizing the perspective of the three main characters: Carla, Miriam and Laura. It, therefore, is full of lying, deceit and unreliable tales as they relate their backstories in small segments throughout the novel.

Carla is difficult to understand or deeply sympathize with even if she did lose her son tragically years ago and her sister, Angela, a few weeks previously. The other characters and the action seem to revolve around her somewhat, but she seems remote and uninterested in anyone else.

Miriam is a snoopy busybody who has little going for her. She lives in a nice houseboat with flowerpots full of colorful plants. She lives close to Daniel, our victim, living on a rented houseboat, but his is just the opposite of Miriam’s, unkempt and poorly cared for. Miriam is involved in most of the book and causes confusion and animosity wherever she appears. Although she was abducted as a teen and her girlfriend killed, she isn’t a sympathetic character either.

Undoubtedly the strongest character is Laura, who suffered a bad bicycle accident as a ten-year-old child. She spent many months in the hospital and had numerous surgeries. Her injuries left her with “low self-worth, hypersexuality, poor impulse control, inappropriate social behavior, aggressive outbursts, short-term memory lapses and quite a pronounced limp.” She’s always getting into trouble even though she tries to do better. She is the perfect suspect and is soon charged with the crime. She was seen leaving Daniel’s houseboat with blood on her hands shortly after the murder. She thinks she probably didn’t kill Daniel, but she isn’t sure. Still, she is sympathetic and genuinely craves the love and attention she never got from her disastrous parents.

Angela, Carla’s sister, is a sad waif. She drinks too much, is a slob, and is quickly killed off. However, her presence is felt throughout the novel. The reader wants to know why she wasn’t more careful with Ben and allowed him to accidentally fall to his death through the broken railing at her house. Why did she hate (or was it fear?) her son Daniel? Then too, who killed Angela? Carla, for revenge?

Irene, Angela’s neighbor and a fervent reader, gets upset with books that are filled with “all the to-ing and fro-ing, all that jumping around in the timeline…Just start at the beginning, for god’s sake. Why couldn’t people just tell a story straight any longer, start to finish?” She frequently shared books with Angela and discussed them with her, so she keeps her eye on Angela’s house even after Angela dies. Irene is the most likeable character in the novel. She’s unobtrusive and develops a friendship with Laura after Laura befriends her. Irene’s closeness with Angela and the books they enjoyed together help Irene solve the mystery at the end.

Theo, the author and Carla’s ex-husband, answers Irene’s complaint by stating, “…because the reading of a book should be an intellectual exercise for the reader.” So, there you have it, Hawkins’ explanation of why there are so many story lines running concurrently, backward and forward, and why the story is, at times, hard to understand. She is issuing a challenge to her readers.
As the mystery unfolds, Hawkins slowly ties each of the characters to the victim, Daniel, and gives a reason for each of them to have “a slow fire burning.” They each resent how life has treated them. How they are related to Daniel is the stuff of mysteries. The plot thickens until all is explained in a conclusion that may blindside you.

Rhodesian-born Hawkins is best known for her novel The Girl on the Train. It was published in 2015, sold over 20 million copies and was made into a movie the following year. The book is a psychological thriller about alcohol and drug abuse as well as domestic violence. Yet, when it came to her next book, despite the outstanding success of The Girl on the Train, Hawkins said she wasn’t interested in writing version two of the same book again.

A Slow Fire Burning is definitely different but at the same time a cerebral book about flawed female characters who struggle against their demons. In the case of Carla and Angela, they are destroyed by them, but Miriam and Laura manage to overcome them and find a measure of comfort in their lives.

The novel starts off slow and it’s confusing, but stick with it. You will be glad you did.