Book Review

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

‘What is wrong with you?’

Laura has spent most of her life being judged. She’s seen as hot-tempered, troubled, a loner. Some even call her dangerous.

Miriam knows that just because Laura is witnessed leaving the scene of a horrific murder with blood on her clothes, that doesn’t mean she’s a killer. Bitter experience has taught her how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Carla is reeling from the brutal murder of her nephew. She trusts no one: good people are capable of terrible deeds. But how far will she go to find peace?

Innocent or guilty, everyone is damaged. Some are damaged enough to kill.

Look what you started.

Like many readers, I adored Paula Hawkins’ debut, The Girl on the Train.  Both A Slow Fire Burning and her second novel, Into the Water, feel quite different to her debut, but I thoroughly enjoyed this latest offering which quickly proved to be a gripping and addictive thriller.

A Slow Fire Burning starts with a body as Daniel Sutherland is found dead aboard his houseboat, throat cut and with multiple stab wounds.  We then meet four women who have some link to Daniel – some more direct than others – and as we get to know these women, we see how their lives overlap.  One element that I love about this novel is the way in which these characters aren’t all your typical thriller types.  Carla as a decidedly middle-class Londoner comes closest to the “typical” sort of character one finds in these novels, but Laura, Miriam, and Irene all break the mould.  Laura in particular seems an unusual protagonist – a troubled young woman who has had various run ins with the law, many of which were for various acts of violence and some of which she’ll freely admit were her own fault. 

These women all inspire sympathy in their own way.  With Carla, we learn about those she’s lost – her son, her sister, and now her nephew, Daniel, and one can’t help but wonder how much grief a person can cope with.  Irene, still missing her husband of 40-something years, is finding herself increasingly frail although her mind is still sharp and she shouldn’t be underestimated, although plenty do just that.  Miriam is, for me, the most difficult to like.  There’s an air of manipulation about her from the beginning which I find off-putting, although her machinations are fascinating as she tries to engineer events in such a way as to benefit herself first and foremost.  And then there’s Laura.  She evokes sympathy from the off as it’s clear that she’s had a difficult life, stemming from a dreadful accident when she was a child that has left her with both physical and mental scars.  Deeply affected by everything life has thrown at her, it seems clear that she’s been brushed to one side by her family and by society in general, leaving her to muddle along as best she can. 

As the novel progresses, we get to know these four women in more detail, and I love the way in which Hawkins plays with the reader’s sympathies. Each chapter seems to reveal something new, and my views and opinions of these women changed regularly – in both a positive and negative sense – as I came to understand them more.  It’s so cleverly done and keeps the reader on their toes throughout.  All have their role to play in these events, even sweet old Irene who isn’t a suspect in Daniel’s murder but whose life becomes entangled with the others through no fault of her own.  Despite my shifting views, there were characters that I liked more than others and who I wanted to be innocent of Daniel’s murder, even if I wasn’t always sure that it would turn out that way.   

A Slow Fire Burning does, as the title might suggest, move at a relatively slow pace although I found it gripping throughout.  There’s the mystery of what happened to Daniel, but the focus is more on these four women, providing the detail to their lives and their often-harrowing backgrounds through flashbacks to gradually reveal whodunnit.  And my suspicions as to who that was changed frequently, such is the level of misdirection used.  It builds up to a fantastic conclusion – I love how Hawkins brings the novel to a close, keeping the reader guessing to the end. A Slow Fire Burning is another fantastic novel from Paula Hawkins, and one that I highly recommend.


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