Before I Burn blends fiction with memoir

Book cover for Before I Burn: A Novel by Gaute Heivoll

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Before one begins to read Gaute Heivoll’s award-winning book Before I Burn: A Novel, it is perhaps worthwhile to ponder its subtitle.

If the author has written about an actual event and one that he has seriously researched, why does he explicitly call his book a novel? Keeping this in mind, the reader may find the book easier to follow or, quite the contrary, more confusing.

In either case, Heivoll has written an extraordinary book of great psychological depth that has won several awards including the Brage Prize, one of Norway’s most prestigious literary prizes.

Heivoll skillfully intertwines the story of a famous Norwegian arsonist with his own childhood memories and current research. The reader closely follows not only the actions of the arsonist but also those of the author himself as a child and an adult. One begins to see certain parallels between their personalities and relationships with others, particularly family members.

In the summer of 1978, an arsonist was on the loose in a small village in southern Norway. This person had set fire to 10 buildings, most of them homes, in one month. The villagers were naturally terrified. Who was doing it? Who would the next victim be?

Heivoll was only an infant at the time of the fires (he was christened on the day of the last fire), but he had grown up in this village where the story of the fire was frequently a topic of conversation. He eventually left the village but came back 30 years later to try to understand what had happened and, more importantly, why.

Before I Burn is a book that combines a crime story and a memoir and makes for a very satisfying read—an excellent choice for stimulating summer reading.

But—is it really a memoir or is the Heivoll in this novel a fictional character?

The original version, entitled Før jeg brenner ned, was published in 2010 by Tiden Norsk Forlag, Oslo. The English translation was published by Greywolf Press in 2013.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.