Given the amount of crime fiction that I read, it’s rare that I’m surprised by a book. However, Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll was an unsettling and moving read that defies classification as a traditional crime novel.
The book is written in the style of a memoir about a seminal time in the narrator’s childhood when a pyromaniac was destroying houses in his home village in Norway. The incidents took place in the summer of 1978, around the time of the narrator’s birth, so he isn’t relying on his memory to relate the events. Instead, the fires remain ingrained in the population’s consciousness and the story of the local pyromaniac is discussed and reflected up for years after the event.
Much of the early book imagines the reactions of residents as they watch their homes go up in flames. Villages who have little in the way of material wealth, lose virtually everything and have to start again from scratch. These scenes are extremely moving, especially as elderly residents watch their life’s possessions go up in flames. The identity of the fire obsessive is known to the reader fairly early on, which adds to the tension as residents speculate who might be responsible.
Interspersed in the narrative, and the focus of the later sections of the book, are the reflections of the narrator as he grows up and moves away from his rural upbringing. As a student in Oslo, he buys some trendy spectacles and a large coat and imagines he can create a new personality for himself. But when his father is diagnosed with cancer, he is drawn back to the region of his birth.
It’s difficult to judge whether I’ve given too much or too little information about the book in writing this review. It’s beautifully written and the translation, by Don Bartlett, is also excellent. The rural setting is vividly brought to life and adds to the drama of the dual narratives. The narrator is presumably the author, but it’s difficult to tell where memoir and imagination intersect. To call this book a crime novel would be incorrect and also fail to do the work justice. It’s a story, I suppose, ultimately about loss and the nature of madness.
Thanks to Atlantic Books for sending me a copy of the novel.