On reading the first few pages of Gaute Heivoll’s Before I Burn, one could be forgiven for assuming it to be a fairly straightforward crime novel. It’s the story of an arsonist who terrorizes a small town in Norway, and of a young novelist named Gaute Heivoll who attempts, years later, to reconstruct his story and find in it some parallel with his own life. The case is based on a true arson case, and Heivoll has reconstructed the conflagrations of the summer of 1978 with careful attention to detail. But the novel, at its best, is not a thriller at all, but a compassionate meditation on the past, suffused with dreamy sorrow.
Before I Burn unfolds in a series of vignettes, combining scenes from the past in multiple perspectives with Heivoll’s reflections on his own life (or, at least, the life of a narrator who shares his name and resembles him a great deal). While the book begins with a tautly paced scene describing a fire set in an elderly couple’s house, Heivoll does not try to sustain this suspense—thankfully, because the true mystery of the novel is never the identity of the arsonist, and writing thrilling scenes is neither one of Heivoll’s greatest strengths, nor, apparently, one of his more pressing interests. Even in the novel’s very strong opening scene, the driving tension is less the terror of Johanna and Olav Vatneli, the elderly couple at the center of the conflagration, than the unsolved mysteries and sorrows to which their burning house gives physical form—a dead son, whose childhood room is perfectly preserved, a suitcase full of money stored under the bed instead of in the bank, an unexplained illness that causes the old woman to bleed nightly into her underwear.
Heivoll will frequently pause the narration of an arson scene to comment on the records left behind, tracking the coverage of each of the fires in the local newspapers and on the radio. This, along with the scenes in which the novel’s narrator goes to visit victims of the arson attacks, gives the novel a quality of an oral history, punctuated by pauses to verify dates, times, actors. At their best, these archival pieces provide crisp interludes between the more novelistic reconstructions of crimes and motives, as in a passage describing a clip from a television broadcast:
The cameras focused on a scene in Vatneli.… That was fire number ten. A solitary man stood there hosing down the debris as if there were something planted in the ashes that needed watering.
While Before I Burn frequently switches perspectives from the point of view of the arsonist, his victims, and that of Heivoll himself as he grows up, enters school, drops out, cares for his father and finally begins to find himself as a writer, the novel is always hinting at something more to the story, some psychological depth to its actors about which Heivoll can only speculate, and which he frequently offers without comment. What occurred during the arsonist’s time in the army that led to his discharge? How did Johanna Vatneli’s son die? Why did Heivoll’s childhood piano teacher write the letter that gives the novel its title, and who was it addressed to? Heivoll does not try to provide answers to these questions, and his silence creates a pervasive, melancholy sense of the incompleteness of the lives he wants to describe, the simultaneous closeness and inaccessibility of the dead.