Book Review

Anne Valente’s Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is a valiant exploration of human suffering in the aftermath of public tragedy. At almost 400 pages, Valente’s first novel is hefty in style, lingering in the main characters’ family dynamics, romantic relationships, and the unique experiences of individual and communal trauma. Despite its grisly premise—the after effects of a high school shooting—Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down uses empathy as the lens through which tragedy, suffering, and public grievance are closely examined.

The book begins in the first person plural, a resounding “we” that propels the narrative forward:

     We were accustomed to uncertainty then. We lived in      an era of ambiguity and the numbness of television and      news, strange days we witnessed but barely understood. We’d watched our country step that year into the light of a Baghdad dawn, a morning in March when we woke to the news of air strikes booming across the city and marking the beginning of a war we knew nothing of, a war that felt faraway and distant and numb.

From this initial collective, the narrative breaks off into four distinct voices belonging to high school students Matt, Nick, Christina, and Zola, a group of four childhood friends connected by their roles as the school’s yearbook staff. Matt, the son of the town’s lead investigator, loses the will to sleep, perpetually haunted by the image of a bloodied classmate. Nick, in an attempt at coping, becomes absorbed in researching a series of mysterious house fires that plague the town. Christina struggles with the fall out of an abusive relationship. And Zola remains marred by the moment during the shooting when her own death is staved off by fate and a few library bookshelves. Through these characters, we are lodged into the kitchens, bedrooms, and living room spaces of a community searing with questions. We are complicit in the passionate nature of adolescents. We are witnesses to the shock, confusion, and powerlessness that strongholds a grieving community in the wake of a senseless act. Valente pushes our general understanding of perspective by using the individual strengths of both the braided third person narrative and the collective first person, balancing multiple, distinguishable voices in a single arc.

Attention to craft and lyricism is undeniable. Valente has a style similar to knitting in that it builds upon itself, pulling details, images, and key objects from one sentence into the next. In a greater sense, this layered style is what gives the book its weight, though at times, this constant piling of things feels more cluttered than cumulative:

This: an attempt to archive. An attempt at futility. An attempt to gather and collect and piece together and put away, an assemblage of articles and documents and reports and profiles. An archive of record, that this happened. An archive of moving on. An archive of prisms, of refraction, of looking at the same light from an endless stretch of angles. An archive that evaded us, that still evades us, an archive of pressing on regardless of evasion to put everything back together, to reassemble parts, to create a perfect whole from scattering fragments.

Repetition becomes the go-to choice in describing moments of emotional poignancy, but it is this same device that becomes a crutch for rendering scenes of high tension. When it comes to repetition, Valente is a maximalist, and while it works beautifully in certain emotionally driven chapters, at times it feels much like a meal that has been overly salted. Despite this, Valente writes with poetic wisdom, never passing up an opportunity to linger in scene and extract from it as much detail and beauty as she can.

In terms of structure, Valente is something of an archivist. Pillared in between the larger narrative are brief chapters written as newspaper clippings, student profiles, and a litany of hard facts about fire science, such as the exact degree at which a human body burns, all written in Valente’s carefully crafted prose. The inclusion of these mini-chapters sparks a collage-like quality, a device that is refreshing in its approach, but at times tedious in its delivery. One such example is the chapter titled “A Brief History of Fire Investigation Terms,” formatted as a straightforward Q and A:

Q: What is a fire point?
A: The temperature at which a substance will burn for at least five seconds beyond ignition by an open flame.
Q: What is a flash point?
A: The point a few degrees below the fire point, wherein ignitable vapors are present.
Q: What is heat?
A: The release of energy when a substance changes from a higher to a lower state.

While these intermittent chapters function as breadcrumbs to the book’s central mystery, their inclusion can be distracting from the larger narrative. These instances are few, however, and the choice to include these chapters of “brief histories” is not without value as their presence creates texture and offers relief from the grieving world of the larger story.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is a bold examination of a subject that is unimaginably difficult to encapsulate in a way that is neither exploitative nor insensitive to those who have suffered a similar trauma. The subject of school shootings is mentally exhausting for both the writer and the reader, but Valente manages to pull off the emotional gravitas necessary to make this book and its seemingly dark premise work, and, most importantly, spark a conversation about a subject that often feels too heavy to discuss and unpack openly. Valente writes with the ear of a poet and the inquisitive instinct of a journalist. Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is a book unflinching in its portrayal of grief, loss, and the frailty of the human heart.

About the Reviewer

María Isabel Alvarez was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala and is currently an MFA Candidate at Arizona State University. She was awarded first prize in the 2016 Blue Earth Review Flash Fiction Contest and her short stories and poems are published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Sonora Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @maria_i_alvarez.