Before I Burn: A Novel

Overview

An international literary sensation about an arsonist on the loose in rural Norway and the young man haunted by the story

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 ...

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Before I Burn: A Novel

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Overview

An international literary sensation about an arsonist on the loose in rural Norway and the young man haunted by the story

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/07/2013
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.)
From the Publisher

"The book captivates despite revealing the identity of the fire starter early on. It succeeds as a dual character study: of the criminal as he goes about his wicked work, and of the narrator as he tries to make sense of a hazy but vital piece of his hometown's history." —The New York Times

"Meticulously imagined, eerie and atmospheric." —Wall Street Journal

"A semi-autobiographical novel that's poetic, gripping, and at times even profound. . . . Heivoll's writing is terrifically sensory." —NPR, All Things Considered

"[Before I Burn's] power is not in who did it or even why, but in the brutal clarity of Heivoll's unhurried and mesmerizing sentences, pushing through a chilly landscape like the steady shining of blue headlights." —Harper's Magazine

"A ferociously readable double-stranded novel. . . . Before I Burn is an uncomfortably creepy, frequently heartbreaking investigation written by one good young man into the lives of three good young men." —Shelf Awareness

"Fantastic. . . . Stunning on a number of levels--from the structure to the story to the writing itself--Before I Burn stays with readers long after the last page is turned, the way the smell of fire lingers long after the blaze has been extinguished." —Cedar Rapids Gazette

"A masterful novel of levels and depths, beautifully written and stunningly realized." —New York Journal of Books

"A thrilling story. . . . Before I Burn is a great psychological thriller, bringing you into the heart and the minds of the citizens of this small Norwegian town, leaving you looking differently at the people behind the crimes and the writers behind the stories." —Corduroy Books

"Heivoll has given us a mirror of our own responses to memory—whether we deliberately repress or invite it in to become a part of our deep selves. . . . 'Who is it we see when we see ourselves?' This is, indeed, the question that will linger after you read his novel." —BookBrowse

"A thrilling and poetic novel. In this dark and powerful examination of two mens obsessions, Hevioll's introspection and attention to detail are unparalleled. Fans of In Cold Blood and The Devil in the White City will appreciate the chilling true-crime angle, while Heivoll's dazzling prose will quickly enchant those unfamiliar with this Scandinavian writer. An absorbing story of compulsion, obsession, and the power of desire." —Booklist, starred review

"Reads like a top-tier crime story. . . . The deadpan irony of the dialogue and fetishistic, but sympathetic, descriptions of the crimes are chilly and resonant, playing out provocatively against the first-person narrative. . . . A compulsively readable novel about identity and the increasingly blurred line between art and reality." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A highly complex meditation on the human condition and our collective predisposition to insanity. . . . Closer in tone to Francois Traffaut's Shoot the Piano Player or a Tom Waits song/story than an airport mystery novel." —Kirkus Reviews

“One of the best books I have ever read.” —Karin Fossum, author of the Inspector Sejer crime series 

“Gaute Heivoll is one of the finest voices of his generation. Before I Burn is a glowing depiction of the darkness in an isolated human being’s mind.” —Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of My Struggle

"Thanks to Heivoll's adroit and sensitive handling of his themes, this semi-autobiographical account of old crimes is elevated and transformed into a great novel." —The Glasgow Herald

"Heivoll has written in this novel about identifiable people, though sometimes changing their names—and this high-risk strategy has been enormously worth the risk. It is existence itself—its mental and physical pains, its blood-lust offset by the many beauties of natural forms and natural affections—that is the writer's subject, not the nailing of particularities to persons." —The Independent (London)

Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-20
One of Norway's most famous writers investigates a strange series of fires not by examining the ashes, but by looking in the mirror. This is not a crime novel. Except for being labeled a novel, it's not even clear that this ambitious experiment by European best-seller Heivoll qualifies as anything less than the purest metafiction. The author treats his subject (a series of fires started by a serial arsonist in rural Norway in the 1970s) as a highly complex meditation on the human condition and our collective predisposition to insanity. In fact, Heivoll has created himself as a character, letting himself play the narrator, a successful modern-day writer who was born just before the first blaze. At an Italian literary festival, this character, long estranged from his homeland, falls ill, and his fevered mind transforms the audience into the dead of Finsland, his hometown. And so, Heivoll the narrator launches into the work of exploring those frightening days and nights of fiery destruction. Other segments are sickeningly frightening descriptions of the fires themselves: "The whole room was ablaze," Heivoll writes in his first chapter. "The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large wounded animal." Other times, the narrator poetically imagines the firestarter at his work: "He tiptoed in, went to the bathroom and washed, stood for a moment studying some cuts and grazes to his forehead; his fingers still smelled faintly of petrol. His eyes were radiant and the tiredness was gone. There was grass in his hair. He shut his eyes and saw the swallows circling in the smoke under the roof." It's revealed early on that the narrator is well-acquainted with the real identity of the madman; he's just more interested in the question "why?" than whodunit. Closer in tone to François Traffaut's Shoot the Piano Player or a Tom Waits song/story than an airport mystery novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555976613
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 549,907
  • Product dimensions: 10.10 (w) x 7.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Gaute Heivoll’s Before I Burn was a bestseller in Norway. The novel won the Brage Prize and was nominated for the Critics Prize and the Booksellers’ Prize, and has been sold in more than twenty countries.

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