The best novels explore the human condition and, through careful storytelling, teach us something about our world. We read in the hopes of learning more about ourselves: about love, faith, and larger emotions that can be difficult to explore on our own.
Gaute Heivoll’s recently translated novel “Before I Burn” does all that, but what’s curious is Heivoll’s work isn’t a novel exactly: technically it’s a history, a memoir, a novel, and a metafiction, all in one. But don’t get caught up in semantics. Here’s the best way to categorize the work: fantastic.
“Before I Burn” (Graywolf Press, 336 pages, $26) tells the true story of an arsonist’s 1978 rampage on the small village of Finsland, Norway, while simultaneously telling the story of Gaute Heivoll, a character version of our author, who was born during the crisis. Heivoll interviews a number of Finsland residents to learn more about the arsons, and in doing so makes a series of discoveries about himself and his family, as our narrator walked the same streets, went to the same school, and had the same piano teacher as the arsonist. “The stories intertwine and are all connected with the stories of the fires,” the character Heivoll explains. In order to tell the full story, “You gather all the fragments, even ash.”
There are a number of characters and, given that the novel is not told in a traditional straightforward narrative, it’s easy to mix people and times up. But no matter.
Heivoll’s story reminds us what it means to be part of a community and the importance of living an examined life. 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.