Review: Gaute Heivoll – Before I Burn

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 HeivollHeivoll 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.

21 thoughts on “Review: Gaute Heivoll – Before I Burn

  1. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas)

    I’m worried that there’s no mention of a glum, alcoholic, divorced, workaholic policeman in a jumper in your review, Sarah? Surely that’s how we define Northern European crime fiction nowadays?! 😉 (Only kidding – this does sound like a good read).


  2. I’ve only read your first paragraph…enough to intrigue me…I bought this one myself during a lunch time retail therapy session last week and I’m going to try to get to it soon so I don’t want to know any more about what you think yet 🙂


  3. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – I am always glad when a novel does something different and explores crime in a different way. This one really seems to do that. It really sounds like a memorable read.


  4. This sounds very sensitively done, almost like an account of real life events. The cover is terrifying – arson is one thing that particularly scares me, I can’t begin to imagine having your home and all your possessions lost to it. This sounds like a book I’d enjoy.


  5. Pingback: Jussi Alder-Olsen and More | Scandinavian Crime Fiction

  6. Pingback: The Best of May’s Reading | crimepieces

Leave a Reply to Sarah Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.