'Before I Burn' Uses Autobiography To Tell A Crime Story | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

'Before I Burn' Uses Autobiography To Tell A Crime Story

Play associated audio

My favorite crime novels always combine more than one genre. Like a detective mystery that's really psychological. Or a police captain who happens to be a gourmet. Honestly, most travel books don't even get going until a body or two is discovered.

In the case of Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll, the mash-up is suspense meets memoir. It sounds a little gimmicky, but I promise it's absolutely not. Instead we have a semi-autobiographical novel that's poetic, gripping, and at times even profound.

In the summer of 1978 an arsonist terrorized a small village in southern Norway. Ten fires over the course of a month. Buildings burned to the ground. Just after that — in the same week that the last house was torched, a baby boy was christened in a local church. He turns out to be our author. Thirty years later, he's come home to make sense of what happened the summer he was born.

The story follows two paths. The first is about the fires. The author goes around interviewing people he's known all his life. He wants to hear their memories about the nights they couldn't sleep, wondering which house would be next.

Heivoll's writing is terrifically sensory. The fires: "... sounded as if the sky itself was being torn apart. The flames were like large wild birds twisting around one another, above one another, into one another..."

I won't give away any spoilers, though Heivoll does identify the arsonist early on. The guy's a local, well known to the community, and the mystery we have to solve is less about who did it than why.

But the book is also a memoir. Chapters about the author's evolution interweave with others about the arsonist. The parallels are uncomfortable. As a young man, Heivoll wasn't an outcast, but he couldn't connect with other teenagers. He left the village to study law in the big city. But then he quit after his father was diagnosed with cancer. His path from that point to writing is a dark one, but in the end writing is what saves him. Ultimately, the book is a portrait of two young men, one an arsonist, the other an artist.

Of course, it's impossible to fully experience another person's perspective. To know why they set buildings on fire, or why they feel compelled to write books. But Before I Burn makes a persuasive case that the novel is still the best method we've got.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

For The Midterm Elections, A Book On 'What It Takes' To Win

The midterm elections are less than two weeks away. Writer Michael Schaub recommends a book that explores what it's like to run for office and live through all the dramatic ups and downs.
NPR

A Wisecracking Biochemist Shares Her Kitchen ABCs

Shirley Corriher, author of Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking, has tips on taking the bitter bite out of coffee, and holding onto cabbage's red hue while it's in the pan.
NPR

For The Midterm Elections, A Book On 'What It Takes' To Win

The midterm elections are less than two weeks away. Writer Michael Schaub recommends a book that explores what it's like to run for office and live through all the dramatic ups and downs.
NPR

New Facebook App A Throwback To Old Chatrooms

Facebook's new app, Rooms, harkens back to the days of 1990s anonymous chat rooms. New York Times tech reporter, Mike Isaac, talks about why having secret identities online is a good thing.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.