Book review: Before I Burn

I had a pretty high expectation of “Before I Burn” by Gaute Heivoll based on various reviews circulating around the internet about it being a crime fiction (!) written by a Norwegian author (!!). Based on these points, I was sold but sadly, it turned out to be a massive letdown.

As a big fan of Nordic noir as you can read HERE and HERE and HERE, I was not prepared for the fact that this book does not conform to the traditional Scandinavian crime novel category.

Heivoll’s work is more of a cross between recollections and a semi-autobiography, where the narrator revisited his hometown of Finsland to investigate a series of fires set during the year he was born to seek inspiration for his book. While at home, he took a trip down memory lane to recount his relationship with his hometown, its people and his family.

My biggest gripe with this novel is the lack in suspense, which is typically expected in most crime fiction plots, because it was already given away in its synopsis where the fires were based on actual arson cases that occurred in the 1970s in a small town in rural Norway. So before starting on the book, I already knew it was going to be about arson in a small town. True to what was promised, the story was about that and not much more with a very weak plot build up, no major surprises and as expected, the overall story fell flat for me.

Furthermore, I was also unable to connect with the characters in the book even though they have suffered from losses in the fires. I reckoned that it was the manner in which the story was written such that it came across these victims were just going through the motions and even when disaster strikes, the losses were nothing more than just part and parcel in the game of life.

To be honest, NPR gave this book a raving review, promising a ‘poetic, gripping and at times even profound’ experience, and there is a whole load of people who liked it on Goodreads. I gave it my best shot and completed the book but it was simply not one of those books I could click with.

Gaute Heivoll

I fathom it might be because of a translation issue that the English version was unable to accurately convey the thoughtfulness and complex emotions as in Norwegian…perhaps? Or was it because I have preconceived notions about how crime thrillers should be written?

If you have read this book, let me know below if you share similar or different opinions about it. Would love to know if I am alone in thinking that this book was a disappointment.

9 thoughts on “Book review: Before I Burn

  1. Haven’t read the book, but I have read crime dramas translated from other languages. Most recently I read “The Inugami Clan” which is a Japanese murder mystery written by one of the most acclaimed Japanese mystery writers, and it made my head hurt. I definitely agree with you though, that when they translate books they lose some of the authenticity and there are things that are important to the form of the story that are lost in translation.

    1. Yeah, sometimes it’s just a pity how the meaning and context can get lost after being translated… but because curiosity gets the better of me, I am still keen to explore the different styles and writing from different authors around the world.

  2. I haven’t read the novel but I found your review very well written and informative.
    As for so many people liking it while you didn’t…well, different strokes for different folks. 😀

    Having read that you’re a big fan of nordic noir, I invite you to follow my series on the Femme Fatale in Noir Fiction (all types, not just Nordic).

    I hope to see you there. I’d love to hear your comments on this type of noir character. 🙂

  3. Hm, interesting. I started reading (in Norwegian, my native tongue), but lost interest because 1) crime is not the thing for me and 2) this wasn’t crime either, so I didn’t really get it and maybe even 3) I would rather read Knausgård. I initially liked the ideas and perhaps even the fires.

    1. Good to hear from someone who is able to read the Norwegian version of the book because I was wondering if it’s a matter of lost in translation that I didn’t quite enjoy this book by Gaute Heivoll. Thanks for sharing!

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