Norwegian author Gaute Heivoll’s remarkable amalgam of mystery and memoir revolves around a series of arson fires set in a small village in southern Norway during May and June of 1978. The reader learns the identity of the arsonist quite early in Before I Burn, but it becomes apparent that what really intrigues the author is those affected by the fires—not only the families whose barns and simple homes were reduced to ashes, but also the family of the arsonist.
Heivoll was born in the very village where the fires took place, barely two months before the first one erupted. Throughout his childhood he had heard the stories—as the family car slowly passed “the pyromaniac’s house,” or when his father pointed out the barn that burned down “when you were christened.” Some 30 years later, the stories began to gnaw at his psyche, and Heivoll realized he had to delve into the lingering memories of those still alive to try and piece together the puzzle. By means of interviews, diaries and letters from the arsonist during his years of imprisonment, Heivoll gradually constructs a model of what might have happened during those tense weeks, when residents sat silently on their doorsteps all night hoping to catch the arsonist—described only as tall, thin and probably young by one victim, who glimpsed him through the smoke engulfing her kitchen.
Readers of Scandinavian mysteries from authors like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø or Karin Fossum will surely enjoy Heivoll’s superb sense of place and his depiction of this isolated village, surrounded by forest but still lit almost all night in the middle of summer. Like Fossum, he writes from the viewpoint of all connected to the fires, including the arsonist, adding to the reader’s understanding. And readers of the quiet, piercing prose of Per Petterson, like the acclaimed Out Stealing Horses (2007), will especially appreciate Heivoll’s spare, emotional telling of this life-changing episode.