In 1970s Norway, an arsonist targets a small town for one long, terrifying month. One by one, buildings go up in flames. Suspicion spreads among the neighbors as they wonder if one of their own is responsible. Read more...
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In 1970s Norway, an arsonist targets a small town for one long, terrifying month. One by one, buildings go up in flames. Suspicion spreads among the neighbors as they wonder if one of their own is responsible. But as the heat and panic rise, new life finds a way to emerge. Amid the chaos, only a day before the last house is set afire, the community comes together for the christening of a young boy named Gaute Heivoll. As he grows up, stories about the time of fear and fire become deeply engrained in his young mind until, as an adult, he begins to retell the story. At the novel's apex the lives of Heivoll's friends and neighbors mix with his own life, and the identity of the arsonist and his motivations are slowly revealed. Based on the true account of Norway's most dramatic arson case, "Before I Burn" is a powerful, gripping breakout novel from an exceptionally talented author.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-10-07
- Reviewer: Staff
Finsland, a region of southern Norway, falls prey to a serial arsonist in Heivoll’s first English-language novel, which reads like a top-tier crime story. The narrative alternates between accounts of the crimes and the autobiographical entries of a young man named Gaute Heivoll, born around the time of the first fires and coming of age in their shadow. The arson story is based on a real Norwegian crime spree, further obscuring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction within the novel. The arsonist, Dag, is a folkloric figure, though a sinister one. The style of these chapters will be familiar to readers of contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction. The deadpan irony of the dialogue and fetishistic, but systematic, descriptions of the crimes are chilly and resonant, playing out provocatively against the first-person narrative of young Gaute. Through emotional highs and lows, triggered by challenges at school as well as the deaths of his beloved Granddad and Pappa, Gaute’s voice has an energetic and hopeful tone. It is Gaute’s early interest in fire that leads him, once he becomes a writer, to research the notorious arsonist. A compulsively readable novel about identity and the increasingly blurred line between art and reality. (Jan.)
Born out of flames
Norwegian author Gaute Heivoll’s remarkable amalgam of mystery and memoir revolves around a series of arson fires set in a small village in southern Norway during May and June of 1978. The reader learns the identity of the arsonist quite early in Before I Burn, but it becomes apparent that what really intrigues the author is those affected by the fires—not only the families whose barns and simple homes were reduced to ashes, but also the family of the arsonist.
Heivoll was born in the very village where the fires took place, barely two months before the first one erupted. Throughout his childhood he had heard the stories—as the family car slowly passed “the pyromaniac’s house,” or when his father pointed out the barn that burned down “when you were christened.” Some 30 years later, the stories began to gnaw at his psyche, and Heivoll realized he had to delve into the lingering memories of those still alive to try and piece together the puzzle. By means of interviews, diaries and letters from the arsonist during his years of imprisonment, Heivoll gradually constructs a model of what might have happened during those tense weeks, when residents sat silently on their doorsteps all night hoping to catch the arsonist—described only as tall, thin and probably young by one victim, who glimpsed him through the smoke engulfing her kitchen.
Readers of Scandinavian mysteries from authors like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø or Karin Fossum will surely enjoy Heivoll’s superb sense of place and his depiction of this isolated village, surrounded by forest but still lit almost all night in the middle of summer. Like Fossum, he writes from the viewpoint of all connected to the fires, including the arsonist, adding to the reader’s understanding. And readers of the quiet, piercing prose of Per Petterson, like the acclaimed Out Stealing Horses (2007), will especially appreciate Heivoll’s spare, emotional telling of this life-changing episode.