Our Hearts will Burn us Down

Author: Anne Valente
Year: 2016
ISBN: 978-0-06-22911-7
Publisher: HarperCollins Books
Goodreads 3/5 stars
Content Warnings: School shootings, suicide, arson, abuse

Anne Valentine’s debut novel tells the story of the aftermath of a school shooting in St. Louis, Missouri in 2003. It follows Matt, Zola, Christine, and Nick, the members of Louis and Clark High School’s yearbook committee. Early on we see where exactly each one was on the morning of October 8, 2003-when Caleb Reynor brought a shotgun into school during second period. Nick was in English class. Caleb didn’t attack that classroom, but Nick still saw him as he walked past. Christine was in French class, and didn’t see the carnage directly. Zola was in the library, where the final group of students and faculty died. Matt was skipping class and was with his boyfriend Tyler, and he saw the first corpse of a fellow student.

The book skips between focusing on each of these four characters. It doesn’t switch point of view, but rather it maintains this odd combination between a first and a third person point of view. During times when all of the students are together, the author uses the words “we” and “our”. It’s an interesting choice that the author makes. It seems like those parts of the book are from the perspective of the community. It’s not clear, but that’s the meaning that I get from it. I think the ambiguity is nice.

The entire book is in a unique, poetic style. At times it reads less like a novel and more like a modern epic poem. It took me a while to get used to it, but in the end I liked it. I would certainly describe it as avant-garde.

The chapters follow a specific pattern. First comes the actual story. Then is some kind of “brief history”, which is something like a free-verse poem about the events from the previous chapter. Finally there is a piece of media, either a news article, a diagram, or something like that. This pattern starts with the first chapter and continues until the final chapter, as the book ends on a story chapter. It’s a really interesting choice that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

The biggest mystery of this story is not the motives behind the shooting. Rather, there’s a series of mysterious fires that affects each of the victims’ families. As the community tries to grieve and heal, they also have to worry about whether they will be next. And that’s where the story’s weaknesses come through. It’s an interesting idea, but there were flaws in the execution. The whole time, Valente alludes to some kind of arsonist. Even towards the end, I thought that we would get to see who it was. Matt’s father, a forensic invesigator, talks about why someone would be attacking these families. But there’s not really a conclusion to it. There are a lot of loose threads, and maybe it was a choice. Still the ending was pretty unsatisfying.

Our Hearts will Burn us Down sparks quickly, it pulls you in, but it fizzles out towards the end. Still, I’m glad that I read it and I would be interested in reading Valente’s future works. This was such a unique experience that I would still reccomend.

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