Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Book Review: A Slow Fire Burning

By Jami Denison

International bestselling author Paula Hawkins may always be best-known for her record-shattering debut, The Girl on the Train. But her newest thriller, A Slow Fire Burning, may be the one that haunts readers long after they’ve finished it. With characters and a setting similar to HBO’s streaming sensation Mare of Easttown, this story seems tailor-made for the streaming treatment.

Hurt people hurt people. It’s a saying well-known to those recovering from destructive relationships, and it’s also the theme of the book. Every character in A Slow Fire Burning has suffered, sometimes horribly, sometimes by the people they loved and trusted the most. While the structure of the novel is a murder mystery, the killer’s identity is almost the least interesting aspect of the book. Readers root for an end to the characters’ pain, no matter how that happens.

Twenty-three-year-old Daniel Sutherland is found stabbed to death on the shabby houseboat where he lived, mere weeks after his alcoholic mother Angela died alone, falling down the stairs. Angela’s neighbor, a senior citizen named Irene, found her; likewise, the marina’s resident busybody, Mariam, found Daniel. Angela’s sister, Carla, and Carla’s ex-husband, Theo, never recovered from the death of their three-year-old son Ben 15 years ago when he was in Angela’s care, and the two-one punch of these deaths is a painful reminder of Ben’s. 

The main suspect in Daniel’s murder is 20-year-old Laura, whose promising future was curtailed ten years ago when she was hit by a car. With a brain injury that left her volatile and troubled, Laura stormed off Daniel’s boat after a one-night stand. She’s already awaiting trial for stabbing a man with a fork. She’s the most likely suspect. But is she the one?

A Slow Fire Burning, as the title implies, takes its time with the storytelling, concentrating instead on character back story and motivation. And the back stories are tragic. Except for Irene, every other character in the book had a trauma almost too horrible to imagine. As a result, they’re angry, defensive, mistrustful and scared. None of them are likeable, and none of them see any of the other characters in a good light, either. 

While no scenes are graphic or gratuitous, A Slow Fire Burning is a difficult book to get through. Not in the writing—the writing is seamless. But the pain of each character is so overwhelming, and communicated so well, that the reader takes on their pain as their own. Laura, especially; she was left hobbled and damaged and then betrayed over and over by the people who should have been there for her. Every chapter in her point-of-view is almost excruciating. 

The New York Times review says that “only a clairvoyant could anticipate the book’s ending.” I disagree; Hawkins tells her tale so thoroughly that the pieces are obvious and careful readers will know who did it and why. Her clarity does not take away from the book’s rewards; rather, it feels like everything falls into place the way it should. Wrongs are righted, wounds are healed, justice is done and a new day dawns once again. 

Thanks to Riverhead for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Paula Hawkins:

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