cover image Before I Burn

Before I Burn

Gaute Heivoll, trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Graywolf, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-55597-661-3

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.)