Review: 'Before I Burn,' by Gaute Heivoll

  • Article by: EMILY CARTER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 2:00 PM

FICTION: A fictionalized account of a series of fires that terrorized the author’s Norwegian hometown when he was a child.

"Before I Burn," by Gaute Heivoll

What is it about Scandinavian cultural imports that appeals to us so deeply? Is it the melancholy? Surely we have our own brand of that. The sleek warmth of the Scandi-style furniture that media bloggers obsess over after every episode of Danish crime shows featuring depressed detectives? Maybe, but that would more likely send us out after catalogs rather than sequels. My guess is it’s the chill. Not in the weather — though that, too — but definitely in the air. In all that gray light, something is waiting to burst through, full of rage and sorrow. It’s the suspense that gets us — will the fabric hold?

Gaute Heivoll’s taut, tense and tragic book, “Before I Burn,” is an example of this kind of torque at its best. Examining a wave of arson fires that terrorized his hometown in the ’70s, Heivoll — who’s also a main character in the “novel” — flits back and forth in time. He interviews the very old and remembers the very young. He rents a room near the town lake and describes its cold loveliness. All of this is first-rate, fraught with the unsaid. But where Heivoll really shines is when he vaults himself into the mind of the arsonist.

We know early on who is setting the fires, and, superficially, we can even guess why. What Heivoll does is take us inside the mind of someone who is tormented and teased by the idea of success. In a town that values “the sunny side of life” and a sort of cheerful conformity, there is no room for greatness of any kind, and certainly no room for failure. Heivoll describes the arsonist’s actions and thoughts with a kind of humble detachment, which makes the mental illness that shimmers into view all the more frightening. In a way, it’s a cautionary tale about someone who wanted, as they say, “to put themselves forward” in a land where everything must stay even.

The arsonist’s mind, as Heivoll describes it, is what is lurking in the light, waiting to burst through. And like all good monsters, the arsonist is frightening and tragic. In this sense, Heivoll has created the perfect Nordic Noir.

  • BEFORE I BURN

    By: Gaute Heivoll, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

    Publisher: Graywolf Press, 307 pages, $26.

    Review: Winner of Norway’s Brage Prize, Heivoll’s book is tense and taut, taking us inside the mind of an arsonist in a way that is frightening and tragic.

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