Paula Hawkins’ debut, The Girl on the Train, with its truly inspired creation, damaged narrator Rachel, was always going to be a tough act to follow. Perhaps it was inevitable that her second novel, Into the Water, would struggle to meet high expectations. So with her new novel A Slow Fire Burning it’s gratifying that Hawkins has retained her ambition to explore complex, deeply flawed characters on the page. The results might be a little uneven but make no mistake, A Slow Fire Burning is a substantial return to form and is a cleverly plotted and intriguing domestic noir.
Several of the central characters are deeply troubled. Laura Kilbride suffers à la Rachel, others have their own pain to deal with. The psychological portraits of each of them make an otherwise tawdry murder far more interesting to explore. The intentionally veiled narrative is revealed through the eyes of the individuals involved, characters who can’t make sense of events for themselves. We have to navigate their hurt, grief and disjointed impressions in order to understand the brutal crime at the heart of this novel: the murder of a young man on a boat on Regent’s Canal in London.
The issue is that the characters are not equally well drawn and there’s a line that’s occasionally crossed between the author’s intention for us to inhabit a character’s confusion and actually becoming confused with the story. That said, few writers can create as compelling an unreliable young female narrator as Hawkins can. Laura is an alcoholic and the victim of a road accident during childhood which left her with a lasting brain injury.
The novel opens in the aftermath of Daniel Sutherland’s demise. Laura staggers into the darkness along the canal towpath. Her clothes are torn, she’s missing a shoe, she’s in pain and clearly in terror. She feels like she should run for her life. When she’s caught in a car’s head lights she thinks she’s been found and runs harder, eventually getting away.
It’s very early the next morning when Miriam Lewis emerges from the toilet block, complaining about how some of the narrow boat owners just don’t respect the waterways rules. Then she notices the cabin door is open on Daniel’s boat. She’s been meaning to talk to him because he’s overstayed his permit. Without a permanent mooring he should have moved on two days ago – maybe he just forgot. She can’t resist entering the cabin but there’s no one to chastise. Instead, there’s blood on the floor, blood on the walls and Daniel is lying there with his throat cut. Next to his corpse is a set of keys that Miriam recognises. She’s seen Laura use them to open up the launderette. For some reason Miriam pockets them before calling the police.
Back home, Laura could do with some help processing what has happened but as she contemplates her situation she is taunted by the voice of Deidre, her father’s partner, ever critical, telling her she always makes bad choices, they always lead to trouble, this is trouble. Laura is desperate to talk to someone but her mother isn’t picking up the phone and when she tries her father Deidre comes on the line and so she hangs up.
Daniel’s family, his aunt and uncle, take the news hard, it was only eight weeks ago that his mother, Angela, died. His father lives in the States and is out of touch. Detective Barker interviews Daniel’s aunt Carla and her ex-husband Theo who both live within walking distance of the canal but claim they didn’t know Daniel was on a boat nearby. Then the connections to the past and between the characters begin to emerge. Theo remembers he saw a young woman on the tow path near the time of the murder. He didn’t recognise her but that puts the police onto Laura. Carla and Theo both know Miriam, in fact a whole history between Miriam and Theo will surface eventually.
It’s not long before the police find Laura Kilbride – is she being semi-aggressive or defensive? Laura is clearly confused, a bit of a drinker – Daniel called her a ‘psycho-bitch’. She’s been in trouble with the police before, too. When she was a child she stabbed Warren Lacey during a school fracas but she used a fork not a knife. Laura was hit by a car and suffered a brain injury at the age of 10. She doesn’t have the wherewithal to convince the police she didn’t kill Daniel because she can’t even be sure herself of what happened. Miriam has her own trauma to deal with, as does Carla. Already grieving her own child, now she has Daniel’s death to haunt her. Theo is a writer, his biggest success, The One Who Got Away, feeds into the story too.
There’s plenty of trauma under the surface with overlapping tragedies, historic hurts, rape, abduction and murder. This is a slow burn but the denouement is fiery and satisfying. To fully grasp what happened we have to absorb the stories of the three women at its centre – Laura, Carla and Miriam. At times Paula Hawkins’ beautifully fluid narrative becomes so elaborate your full concentration will be called upon. Now and again, the author’s ambition may slightly outstrip her reach, but this is a gripping and empathetic portrait of women traumatised.
For another fluid narrative involving broken and disturbed characters, try Carnivore by Jonathan Lyon.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars