Sneak Peek: Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll

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Welcome to Sneak Peek, an occasional series in which we spotlight books well in advance of publication. We’re kicking off the series with a look at the suspenseful novel Before I Burn by Norwegian author Gaute Heivoll, forthcoming January 2014. During the summer of 1978, an arsonist terrorized the small Norwegian town in which Gaute Heivoll had just been born. Thirty years later, Heivoll returns again and again to that time in his life—the people, the stories, the fear, the folklore, and the myths—to create a story that is part thriller, part memoir, and completely gripping. It’s not hard to see why rights to this novel have been snatched up in over twenty countries. We dare you to read the excerpt below and tell us that you’re not burning to read more. 

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I.

A few minutes past midnight on the morning of Monday, 5 June 1978, Johanna Vatneli switched off the kitchen light and carefully closed the door. She took the four steps through the cold hall, opened the door to the bedroom a fraction, causing a strip of light to fall across the grey woollen rug they had spread over the bed, even though it was summer. Inside, in the darkness, Olav, her husband, lay asleep. She stood for some seconds on the threshold listening to his heavy breathing, then went into the small bathroom, where she let the tap run quietly, as she always did. She stood bent over, washing her face, for a long time. It was cold in there; she was standing barefoot on the rag mat and could feel the hard floor beneath her feet. For a moment she looked herself in the eye. This wasn’t something she usually did. She leaned forwards and stared into the black pupils. Then she tidied her hair and drank a glass of water from the tap. Finally, she changed her knickers. They were covered in blood. She folded them and put them in a bowl of water to soak overnight. She pulled a nightie over her head, and at that moment, in her abdomen, she felt a stabbing pain, the one that was always there but had worsened recently, particularly if she stretched or lifted something heavy. It was like a knife. 

 

Before switching off the light she removed her teeth and dropped them with a plop into the glass of water on the vanity shelf under the mirror, beside Olav’s.

 

Then she heard a car. 

 

It was dark in the living room, but the windows, strangely shiny and black, gleamed as though from a dim light outside in the garden. She walked to the window and peered out. The moon had risen above the treetops to the south, she saw the cherry tree, which was still in blossom, and had it not been for the mist she would have been able to see right down to Lake Livannet in the west. 

 

A car with no lights on drove past the house and continued at a slow pace along the road towards the collection of homesteads known as Mæsel. The car was black, or perhaps red; she couldn’t tell. Not moving at any great speed, it finally rounded the bend and was gone. She stood by the window waiting for one, two, perhaps three minutes. Then she went into the bedroom. 

 

‘Olav,’ she whispered. ‘Olav.’ 

 

No answer. He was in his usual deep sleep. She hurried back into the living room, knocked into the chair arm, hurting her thigh, and reached the window in time to see the dark car returning. It was coming out of the bend, and continued slowly past the living room wall. It must have turned around by the Knutsens’ house, but no one was living there, they had travelled back to town the night before, she had seen them leaving herself. Outside, she heard the crunch of tyres. The low purr of the engine. The sound of a radio. Then the car ground to a halt. She heard a door open, then silence. Her heart was in her mouth. She went back into the bedroom, put on the light and shook her husband. This time he woke, but he didn’t get up until they both heard a loud bang and a tinkle of breaking glass from the kitchen. 

 

As soon as she entered the hall she smelt the pervasive stench of petrol. She yanked open the kitchen door and was met by a wall of flames. The whole room was ablaze. It must have taken a matter of seconds. The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large, wounded animal. She stood in the doorway paralysed with shock. Deep within the wails she recognised – even though she had never heard it before – the sound of glass cracking. She lingered there until the heat became too intense. It was as though her face was being detached, dragged down from her forehead and over her eyes; her cheeks, her nose and mouth. 

 

That was when she saw him. She caught no more than a glimpse lasting two or three seconds. He was a black shadow outside the window, on the other side of the sea of flames. He was rooted to the spot. As she was. Then he tore himself away and was gone. 

 

The hall was already filled with smoke; it seeped through the wall from the kitchen and lay under the ceiling like thick fog. She groped her way to the telephone, lifted the receiver and dialled Ingemann’s number at Skinnsnes, the number, after the events of recent days, she had written in black felt pen on a notelet. As her finger turned the dial she considered what to say. This is Johanna Vatneli. Our house is on fire.