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The Burning Air Reader’s Guide

By Erin Kelly

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly


Questions and Topics for Discussion


The MacBride family has long enjoyed a life of upper-class privilege. Lydia is a highly respected magistrate while Rowan is headmaster at the prestigious private school where all of their children enjoy tuition-free education. They are a tight-knit group—some might even say insular to a fault—and so inwardly focused that they don’t see danger approaching until it’s too late.

When Rowan and his three adult children gather for the first time since Lydia’s death at their weekend home, a renovated barn in the English countryside of Devon, long-held secrets are uncovered and a stranger is found hiding in plain sight. A stranger who is convinced that their beloved wife and mother, Lydia, was a murderer—and who has been gathering evidence against the family and exacting a quiet revenge for years. This wolf in sheep’s clothing will now threaten the youngest member of the MacBride clan, baby Edie, in a desperate attempt at vengeance.

Erin Kelly conjures characters who get under your skin and stay there. The lines of justice and cruelty become blurred at times, and you find yourself momentarily sympathizing with her villains and questioning the victims as Kelly delivers a chilling dose of moral complexity to the whole tale.

Fans of Sophie Hannah and Kate Atkinson will find The Burning Air—Kelly’s most unnerving novel yet—entirely spellbinding.



Erin Kelly is the author of acclaimed psychological thrillers The Poison Tree and The Dark Rose. She was born in London and grew up in Essex. She studied English at Warwick University and has written for such publications as The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Red, Marie Claire, and Elle (UK). She lives in north London with her family.



Q. What are some of your favorite works of suspense fiction?

A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin is a master class in suspense. It’s more than sixty years old but as pacy and taut as any contemporary thriller. Like The Burning Air, it deals with identity, privilege, and revenge; and uses multiple points of view and jump-cuts to create that tension. I reread it closely when I was writing this novel.

A Judgement In Stone by Ruth Rendell also deserves a mention as it tells us the “punchline” in the opening lines: we know how the book ends and the suspense lies in discovering how, and why, it happened.

Q. At least two of your novels deal with a powerful family as seen by an outsider. Why do you think you are drawn to exploring this type of family versus the odd man out dynamic?

I’m not sure. My own family is very close, although I like to think that we welcome outsiders with open arms: I do suppose I see blood ties as the only unbreakable bond, and it’s interesting to explore what happens when a damaged or vulnerable person insinuates himself into a clan and tries to divide and rule. We have all known a seductive family where glamour and confidence seems to be inherited—and don’t we all like to think that even the beautiful people have their own dark secrets to bear?

Q. Your description of the flaming Tar Barrels was a fascinating peek into a little known tradition. Tell us more about this tradition and what drew you to include it.

I wanted to set the kidnap scene against something colorful and dramatic, and Bonfire Night, which falls on November 5 every year, seemed the perfect evening. It’s cold, it gets dark early, entire families turn out to watch the fireworks and gather around communal bonfires to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, a seventeeth-century terrorist who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. I couldn’t resist pitting the staged chaos of fire and fireworks against the psychological drama at the heart of the novel.

Originally that section of the novel was set in Lewes, a small town on the south coast of England, where their Guy Fawkes night celebrations are legendary. But as the novel unwound, it became obvious that Lewes, which is only an hour away from London, wasn’t remote enough. I needed miles of open country, a place where a family could credibly be cut off from help. I have various books on British heritage, traditions, and festivals (I’ve always been fascinated by our ancient pagan and Christian rituals—we have literally hundreds of these quirky little traditions) and leafing through one of them I found out about the Tar Barrels. One look at the map—Ottery St Mary is hidden in a remote valley in an untouched corner of the country—and I knew I had my perfect location, and my perfect event.

Like the MacBride family, the event is something solid that can be traced back for generations. No one really knows the origins of the Tar Barrels festival. There are several theories—that it dates back to the time of the Black Death and the smoke from the flaming barrels was used to fumigate the town, or that the original tar barrels were beacons warning of the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

Q. The characters in this novel are fantastically creepy and multidimensional; each has his/her own secret, obsession, or glaring flaw. What is your process for developing such well-rounded and intriguing characters?

I don’t have a process as such. I don’t do any exercises or write any back story for my characters before beginning the book as I know some authors do—I get to know them as I go along, and often find that the character who makes it onto the printed page is a world away from the one in my earlier draft. (The same process applies to plotting: I don’t know what’s going to happen until I write it.) It’s not a particularly efficient process, but it works for me. I think, and write, in scenes rather than chapters and the characters seem to reveal themselves by their actions.

Spoiler Warning: Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know whodunit!

Q. Darcy starts out as an underprivileged boy in an unfortunate situation, but quickly grows into a disturbed (and deeply disturbing) young man. His obsession with the MacBride family, and his inability to silence his late mother’s goading voice, makes him a formidable foe. While it is possible to have sympathy for him in the beginning, it is difficult to maintain such generosity with someone so loathsome. Do you view Darcy mainly as a villain, or as a victim of circumstance?

I have my own views on Darcy but I’d hate to prejudice the reader’s own conclusion—early feedback from British readers suggests that he’s a divisive character, much as Biba from The Poison Tree was. But I did enjoy the challenge of sustaining the same voice as he went from victim to perpetrator.

Q. The Burning Air is set in the present day, in a world wired for constant connection. Characters have mobile phones and social media accounts. As a writer of suspense, do you find it more difficult today to create believable circumstances of isolation, such as the remote Far Barn, which is located outside the safety net of cell phone towers?

Modern technology has shifted the parameters but all we need to do is operate within them. We all know that computers and cell phones are fallible—batteries run out, Internet connections are faulty—and these failings can be exploited to dramatic effect. Who hasn’t felt the frustration of a phone that diverts to voice mail when the call’s recipient is stuck in a tunnel somewhere? It’s just the twenty-first-century equivalent of, say, the letter that gets left under the doormat in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Even as I wrote the scenes where the phone wires have been cut and the cell phones don’t work, I braced myself for criticism and I’ve already had e-mails from readers who doubt that true isolation exists in 2013. But in fact, much of the book was written in Devon, on a writing retreat at a remote farmhouse and my daily ten-minute walk down a dirt track to call home is testament to the fact that there are still large areas of the UK untouched by the phone masts. These places do exist, but few of us seek them out—and, I suspect, many who do find themselves out of range feel so uneasy that they don’t linger long.

Q. What kinds of stories scare you?

I don’t scare easily within my own genre, perhaps because even with the best novels I’m still aware of the nuts and bolts of the structure—I can always picture the wizard behind the screen. It’s the end-of-the-world stuff that gets me—books that deal with climate change or nuclear fallout. I can’t remember a book ever having disturbed me as much as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I was uneasy for weeks after I read that.

Q. There are (at least) two fantastic twists in this novel, so surprising and yet so logical it’s hard to believe it wasn’t apparent all along. Do you have a favorite plot twist or surprise ending in fiction or film?

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, which is about a series of murders in post-Stalin Russia, contains a reveal so clever and surprising that I had to put the book down for a few minutes before I could read on. With one word it shocks, thrills, and ties together seemingly irreconcilable strands of the story.

  • How does Erin Kelly build suspense throughout the novel? Discuss in terms of structure, narration, and chronology.

  • The Burning Air is broken up into distinct sections, each narrated by a different character. Are any of these narrators reliable? Explain your answer.

  • How are issues of class and privilege dealt with in this novel?

  • The role of motherhood is an ongoing theme, ranging from Darcy and his mother to Lydia and the MacBride children to Sophie and her struggle with postpartum depression and finally to Kerry’s desperate quest to become a mother. An argument can be made that all of these mother-child relationships are unhealthy (and some are downright detrimental and dangerous). What point is the author trying to illustrate by portraying motherhood through these sometimes desperate and obsessive characters?

  • How is the value of education viewed by the characters in this novel? Compare and contrast Darcy’s mother’s beliefs on education with those of Rowan and Lydia MacBride.

  • Describe three scenes that involve fire or burning in this novel and how each one functions as a literary device.

  • This novel is full of secrets: familial skeletons in the closet, hidden illegal deeds, mental illness covered up. The characters who keep these secrets try to justify their actions, claiming love or reputation as reason enough to hide away their worst thoughts and actions. Darcy infiltrates the MacBride home and eventually gains access to Lydia’s diaries, unleashing her private thoughts in the blind hope of reading a certain confession. Darcy’s main goal seems to be shedding light on the truths of the past and baring all in front of the MacBrides. Does he succeed in this aspect of his plot? Why or why not?

  • Kerry makes a final attempt to redeem herself at the very end of the novel. Do you believe that her character has truly changed?

  • Obsession is a prevalent theme in The Burning Air. Is it always a bad thing? Discuss the pitfalls and rewards of obsession citing three examples from the novel.

  • Lydia and Darcy pit themselves against one another, plotting to get revenge for the other’s misdeeds. Does either one ever achieve revenge and, if so, are they satisfied when they achieve it?
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