Zimbabwean-born, London-dwelling author Paula Hawkins is best-known for her debut novel, The Girl on the Train, a book which seemingly paved the way for a slew of unreliable narrators in popular fiction.
A Slow Fire Burning is her third novel and again she offers us strong, flawed and sometimes-unlikeable female characters. In fact there are several on offer here as – like Hawkins’s second book, Into the Water – this unfolds from multiple points of view all offering very different voices, personalities and views on life.
A Slow Fire Burning
by Paula Hawkins
Published by Doubleday
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
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.
The blurb references three main characters: Laura, a young woman suspected of murder; Miriam, a middle aged woman with an obvious agenda; and Carla, the aunt of the murder victim, who comes with significant baggage.
However, it’s a fourth character, an elderly woman who is my favourite. Irene is certainly the most likeable of Hawkins’s offerings but also gives us the most objective insight into many of the events unfolding and the behaviour of other key players.
I initially engaged with Miriam; probably because as she’s (also) single and of a similar age to me. And probably a little prickly like moi. But it soon becomes obvious she’s kinda weird (in a not-entirely-nice way). She’s got her secrets (and the aforementioned agenda) and is hatching a plan that may not bode well for others we’ve met.
Laura is an open book. We learn she’s got an acquired brain injury. Her flaws are front and centre and she knows herself well. She’s her own worst enemy but easily the most interesting of the characters we meet here. I liked her (and sympathised with her) as we learn more about her background and are exposed to her (often inept) acts of kindness.
It takes us a while to get Carla’s story but she’s certainly complex and the hardest to figure out.
I really loved the way Hawkins develops these characters to give them layer upon layer of life. I know there’s often a lot of discussion about unlikeable characters and whether they’re hard to engage with or relate to, and Hawkins certainly doesn’t shy away from giving her designs some major flaws.
The murder of a young man (Daniel) is the at the crux of this novel and unites our disparate storytellers. His recently-dead mother was Irene’s neighbour and best friend. His mother was Carla’s semi-estranged sister. Laura was with him the night before his murder and Miriam discovered his body. However, it’s the lead characters’ backstories that are all-important and converge into the present.
Though ultimately tragic, Hawkins offers us a whodunnit here with Irene who’s acting as a storyteller of sorts… our own Miss Marple if you will.
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins will be published in Australia by Penguin Random House and available from 31 August 2021.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.