Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Before I Burn, By Gaute Heivoll


"When the first building was set alight in the region of Finsland in Southern Norway at the beginning of May 1978, I was not yet two months old," Gaute Heivoll tells us. "A month later… it was all over. There had been ten fires, and it was the day after my christening."

Heivoll grew up hearing stories of this outbreak of destruction which ruined lives as well as properties. He became increasingly aware that his earliest apprehensions were inextricable from a rural society still bewildered and hurt by what had occurred. He grew up knowing victims and witnesses of the fires; he even knew the arsonist, though chooses not to tell us until the epilogue.

Get money off this book at the Independent bookshop

This skilled wheeling over the whole community before he alights on this person is indissoluble from Heivoll's intention. The fires, though deliberately started, are an occurrence rather than a crime. The young person responsible is less a psychological case than a tragic example of humanity's inability to cope with its urge to destroy.

Heivoll reacted against Finsland in late adolescence. He was devoted to books, with little taste for the hunting and boozing of his contemporaries. He went to Oslo University to study law, though found this so uncongenial he handed in blank pages at his all-important exam.

What he wanted to be was a writer, and writing, he came to perceive, was inextricably bound up with Finsland: with his father, who died of cancer in his fifties, and with the pyromania of summer 1978. On an official visit to Mantua, he felt unwell as his Italian audience transmogrified for frightening instants into the dead of Finsland. He realised he should return, and harness his creativity to coming to terms with what had happened there.

Heivoll has written in this novel about identifiable people, though sometimes changing their names – and this high-risk strategy has been enormously worth the risk. It is existence itself – its mental and physical pains, its blood-lust offset by the many beauties of natural forms and natural affections – that is the writer's subject, not the nailing of particularities to persons.