A Slow Fire Burning is a fast-paced, character-driven murder mystery

A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins, takes a small-town lens to a London neighbourhood and uses a unique, fast-paced variety of perspectives and narratives to unfold a mystery.

A Slow Fire Burning was anticipated by readers of the thriller genre in part because of the success of The Girl on The Train, which hit shelves in 2015 and topped bestseller lists. Paula Hawkins’ newest novel was published on Aug. 31 of this year and became an instant New York Times bestseller.

The story begins when a young man is found murdered in a houseboat on London’s Regent Canal. However, the story is not about Daniel. It is about three woman who have their own individual connections to him. Laura was the last to see him alive, Miriam is the neighbour who found his body and Carla is his aunt already grieving the loss of Daniel’s mother.

These women all live in the neighbourhood around the canal and as the plot progresses, the reader learns how they are all connected. The non-linear background adds depth to the characters, plot and eventual ‘who-done-it’ reveal of the chronological storyline.

The map Hawkins includes in the opening pages of the novel transports the reader into the specific neighbourhood. Rarely does the story take place beyond the map and rarely do we get backstories for characters who do not live within its boundaries.

Hawkins uses a variety of characters, and what they know about the unfolding mystery, to add a layer of suspense to the reading experience. There are five characters whose perspective the narrative shifts between over the course of the 300 page novel. The characters have their own distinct views on the mystery and they each believe differing facts to be true.

By shifting between narratives and characters, Hawkins creates a page turner. A chapter written in Laura’s perspective ends when she finds out a critical piece of information. The next chapter will pick up with a different character who is not aware of what Laura is doing or has figured out.

The reader becomes just as eager as Hawkins’ characters to unravel the mystery that is at the core of the story.

The structure of the storyline has an element of self-awareness as well. Theo, Carla’s ex-husband, is a writer who is known for his thrillers. Throughout the course of A Slow Fire Burning, the reader also gets snippets of Theo’s novel The One That Got Away.

Theo defends the non-linear structure of his novel saying that it plays “with perceptions of guilt and responsibility, challenging the reader’s expectation.”

This is also what readers experience with Paula Hawkins’ A Slow Fire Burning

The reader’s understanding of who is guilty and why shifts throughout the fast-paced narrative. When the mystery is solved and the perpetrator identified, it is still not clear to the reader where responsibility lies.

The neighbourhood that Hawkins creates gives the plot a small-town playground setting for the story to unfold within. The truth comes out, the mystery unravels, but the reader is left wondering where the fire started and how long it’s been burning.

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