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Susan’s Bookshelves: A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins really is quite something isn’t she? First there was The Girl on The Train (although not her first novel) which got right under people’s skin and now this taut 2021 title which also hits you between the eyes but in a different way. No wonder it was a Sunday Times bestseller last year.

We’re on the canal in the Islington/Clerkenwell area where some houseboats are moored near some houses. A young man, an artist, who lives alone on one of them is brutally stabbed to death early one morning. Four people seem to know something about this: Miriam who lives on the next door boat, Laura who has apparently spent the night with him, Theo a novelist who lives nearby and Theo’s ex wife Carla.

Hawkins’s great strength is the way she drip feeds information as she gradually reveals the complex network of connections between the four main characters. It’s a long way from standard crime fiction and it’s writing for grown ups. You have to pay attention to pick up the subtleties. She sometimes reminds me of Ruth Rendell.

At the heart of the drama are two subplots – how did Theo and Carla’s infant son die when he was in the charge of her late sister, Angela? And did Theo steal the plot of a manuscript shown him by Miriam which is predicated on a dreadful incident in her youth? It’s all immaculately woven together and I didn’t spot the end-twist coming – not the one relating to the opening murder but the one concerning Theo’s novel. You read the last page with a triumphant sense of justice having been done.

The characterisation is delightful too. Laura’s elderly friend Irene is one of the best fictional folk I met in the whole of 2021. And one really feels for poor tortured, anguished Angela whom we encounter only through the memories of others. The sense of canal side life is warmly evoked as well – I’d quite like to live on a houseboat if I could make it as attractive and well organised as Miriam’s.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Medusa’s Ankles by AS Byatt

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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