When an author’s debut novel captivates the book world as thoroughly as Paula Hawkins’s 2015 psychological thriller, The Girl on the Train, it’s a given that all of their subsequent works will be incessantly compared to their maiden voyage. Though Hawkins’s latest, A Slow Fire Burning, is similar in some ways (boy, is it a thriller), it has many of its own merits that more than warrant a read.
The book opens with the gruesome murder of Daniel, a man in his early 20s living on a houseboat in London. Right off the bat three prime suspects emerge: First, Miriam, a nosey woman who lives on a neighboring houseboat who discovers Daniel’s body. Then there’s Daniel’s Aunt Carla, Daniel’s mother’s sister who at first seems like a grief-stricken aunt but is later revealed to be nursing a whole lot of resentment. Finally (and most compellingly), Laura, the one-night stand last seen in Daniel’s home. Unsurprisingly, all three are keeping major secrets.
Those three women, plus five or so other main characters, take turns narrating the novel, which makes for an occasionally confusing structure—particularly at the beginning of the book. Each of said narrators are unreliable (and frankly, unlikeable) in their own ways, with the only semi-exception to the rule being Laura. Though certainly unreliable, she’s a character you can’t help but feel for. A traumatic brain injury left her with a lack of inhibition that ends up getting her into constant trouble. Hawkins treats her similarly to Rachel, the protagonist of The Girl on the Train, in that she’s a troubled woman who makes the same mistakes over and over, despite trying to get better.
Interestingly, there’s also a book within the book, and a character who’s a writer of mystery novels. In one particularly meta moment, he notes about, “It was a book that exposed the way the sympathies of the reader might be manipulated, laying bare how quickly we jump to conclusions about guilt and innocence, power and responsibility.”