It started, for Paula Hawkins, with the memory of a story and a walk along the canal near her London flat. It was 2018 and she was wandering around trying to think of ideas. Into the Water, her second novel – the second to be published under her own name, that is – had come out a year earlier, and she was still experiencing aftershocks from the extraordinary success of her first, TheGirl on the Train. That novel, published in 2015, had sold a staggering 20m copies and been made into a film. Hawkins was mulling new options while she walked. “Peering into people’s houseboats – lovely, pretty ones with flower pots on the roof and solar panels, and also the ones that are sinking into the water and look as if nobody has touched them for years.” The thought she had was: “There could be anything in there.”
Hawkins is speaking to me via video from Edinburgh, where she spends half her time and sat out much of lockdown. The result of that walk three years ago was A Slow Fire Burning, set on and around the canal in north London and featuring a cast of characters all of whom, to one degree or another, are satisfyingly bent out of shape. There is Theo, a self-pitying middle-aged novelist, still involved with his snooty ex-wife, Carla. There is Miriam, occupant of one of the houseboats and bearer of the kind of malevolent energy that inclines people to cross the towpath to avoid her. There is poor Angela, wraith-like and destroyed by some event in her past. And there is Laura, the central character of the book, who grew out of a dim memory Hawkins had of reading about a girl with a traumatic brain injury. “Someone who’d been in an accident that led to personality changes,” she says. “And I thought about how that would make an interesting character in a book, because you’d have all these difficulties and challenges in your life, and yet you’d present to the world quite normally.” A dead body shows up, and off they go.
A Slow Fire Burning is a treat: utterly readable, moving in parts and saturated with the kind of localised detail that made The Girl on the Train so compelling. It’s also delivered unsentimentally and with an eye on the cliches of the genre; there is violence in her novels, but the female characters aren’t graphically tortured. Some of this is moral; Hawkins grew up watching horror movies – she didn’t like them, but her best friend did – and she was always cognisant of “that fetishisation of fear; that enjoyment of women being terrified that seems to go on and on and on”.