Some people are victims and others are predators and one’s status can be based on intelligence, appearance, wealth, age or more. Stereotypes prevent friendships and complicate investigations.
And then there are the vast majority of people who navigate life in between those categories, avoiding crime, cruelty and victimhood altogether. Irene, a calm and accepting elderly woman in A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins, understands how others view her, “fulfilling their expectations of the aged: sitting a chair in a room, alone, musing on the past, on former glory, on missed opportunities, on the way things used to be.” Irene is accustomed to others mistaking her dehydration, fatigue, occasional forgetfulness as dementia and hesitant to explain why she sometimes wanted to lose herself in confusion. “How on earth to make clear to him that while it as frightening, the feeling could also e, on occasion, thrilling? That she allowed herself, from time to time, to skip meals, hoping it would come back to her, that feeling that someone was missing, and that if she waited patiently, they’d come back. Because in those moments that she’d forget that William, the man she loved… was dead…. she could lose herself in the fantasy that he’d just gone out to work… and in a minute, just a minute, she’d hear his key in the door.”
Hawkins zeroes in on friendship. One character, crime victim as a child, mourns losing her talent for friendship, and “once it was gone, it was a difficult thing to recover.” Hawkins continues: “Like loneliness, the absence of friendship was self-perpetuating: the harder you tried to make people like you, the less likely they were to do so; most people recognized right away that something was off, and they shied away.”
Older people often complain it’s more difficult to form friendships with age, too, and Irene offers a reason: “The truth was that you felt a certain way inside, and while the people who had known you your whole life would probably see you that way, the number of new people who could appreciate you as that person, that inside person, rather than just a collection of the frailties of age, was limited.”
With her husband dead, Irene does the hard work of forming new friendships, even with those who might be flawed, including an alcoholic neighbor and a young woman with a brain injury. “The best thing about them, from Irene’s point of view, was that they didn’t make assumptions…. They didn’t take for granted that she would be physically incapable, or small-minded, or uninterested in the world.”
Irene appreciates companionship even though she had once read “that the happiest people on earth were unmarried childless women. She could see why – there was a lot to be said for that sort of freedom, for not being answerable to anyone, for living exactly how you pleased.” Love can trigger a ferocity that is hard to understand, as explained by a mother who recalls holding her son after he was born and “you imagine a glorious, golden future. Not money or success or fame or anything like that, but happiness. Such happiness! You’d see the world burn if only it meant they would be happy.”
That mother and other characters in the book may view curious Irene as a busybody – but she understands love and loss. Of course, she is the character who solves two murders.