I have been obsessed with Paula Hawkins since her debut novel Girl on the Train. I may have screamed (I did scream) last month when I got to see her live for a few minutes over Zoom during a trade media presentation. Don’t worry, my mic and camera were switched off.
If there is one thing Paula Hawkins does like no one else, it’s writing knock-out psychological thrillers. Where, if you told me you guessed the baddie from act one, I’d call you psychic. Hawkins populates her suspense novels with a complex cast of characters. And when I say complex, I mean her characters are genuine individuals (so many layers, volumes of backstory), and her story world is inhabited by more than the standard three likely suspects and a few roughly drawn side characters. You don’t see the ending coming a mile away. Hawkins’ story worlds are complex because real life is complex, and relationships are complicated, even when you look at the tiniest cross-section of a community as A Slow Fire Burning so brilliantly does.
We meet Carla (who lost her toddler boy years ago but has not moved on), Miriam (nosy houseboat owner who’s been discarded by society), and Laura (a vulnerable adult who’s been labeled as trouble). The story opens with Carla’s nephew, Daniel, who is found stabbed to death on a houseboat. The question is, who killed him? But the more interesting question, of course, is why Daniel was killed. And if his death is connected to the death of his mother (Angela), who died just a few months earlier.
“Accidents do happen, and they especially happen to drunks. But mother and son, eight weeks apart? In fiction, that would never stand.”Paula Hawkins
The story unfolds through the lens of multiple characters, and while there’s an element that could be described as slow-burn, the suspense is rich and thick and pushes your heart right up against your ribs. The mystery is delicious! The secrets each character is keeping even more so. And not knowing what’s what will keep you turning those pages just about as fast as you can. What’s more to love: the decisions each character makes in the present are informed by a host of past wounds and scars — from the loss of a child and a husband to the loss of innocence, from guilt, substance abuse, mental health issues, and disability, to the betrayal of parents. Yes, ultimately, we want to know who killed Daniel, but it’s the interplay between the characters (their relationships) that so marvelously takes center stage here.
The novel’s complexity, I think, may throw some readers off initially (I’ve glimpsed some unkind early reviews). And I get it; sometimes, all I need is to set my brain on standby and watch reality TV (Love is Blind, anyone?). Other times, my brain craves a movie along the lines of an Oscar winner. A storyline that asks something of you and delivers a return. A Slow Fire Burning is like those Oscar winners. We have to pay attention (especially during the first fifty pages) as we meet multiple characters crafted with the inner lives (flaws and vulnerabilities) usually reserved for just the hero. But the result is an extraordinary suspense novel that feels indelibly real. Because in life, there are no side characters. We are all the heroes of our own stories. In our eyes, we are the axis around which the narrative spins.
A Slow Fire Burning drops readers into a 3-D feeling world where every threat and loss is heightened by not knowing how the strings ultimately connect and what will happen next. Exceptionally written, with a deeply satisfying ending, Paula Hawkins is and remains one of my top-five suspense authors.
A stellar five-star read. And I am picky when giving thrillers the full five.
Rosamund Pike narrates the audiobook to this one in a standout performance. Few people can bring a story to life the way Rosamund Pike can. This dual listening and reading thing is one of my favorite indulgences because it tames my anxious thoughts like nothing else. It’s also a rare indulgence because the lucky stars need to line up perfectly. In this case, a review copy from the publisher and from Libro.fm. This brings me to Libro.fm — my favorite place to listen to audiobooks. Not only (but definitely also) because they support local bookstores.
Whether you pick up the physical copy, the audiobook, or both, A Slow Fire Burning is a domestic suspense story not to be missed!
Book: A Slow Fire Burning
Publication Date: August 31st, 2021
Penguin Random House kindly sent me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion, rating, or the content of my review.