For all our practice with massacres, our response to them becomes no more sophisticated. Thoughts and prayers, we repeat. There are no words. Anne Valente tasks herself with expressing the unspeakable in her debut novel, “Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down,” which opens with 35 students and staff killed in a suburban St. Louis high school. While the community organizes memorials and grapples with its loss, the houses of the victims begin to burn down one by one, claiming the lives of their families.
The novel is narrated by a collective “we” looking back on the 2002 shooting from the vantage of adulthood. The yearbook staff — Christina, Zola, Matt and Nick — must archive this brutal year and present it to their fellow survivors. Their narration is woven with newspaper articles they collect, profiles of the deceased they draft, and a series of “history” chapters (“A Brief History of Fire Scene Investigation,” “A Brief History of Memory,” etc.) that aren’t really histories but lyric interludes that explain, for instance, the temperature required to cremate a body (about 2,200 degrees, if you’re curious), or the neuroscience of memory.
For a novel that begins with 35 murders, “Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down” isn’t so much a story of grief (none of the protagonists were especially close to any of the deceased) but of collective witness. While each character’s shock and trauma manifests individually, from obsessive reading about the killing to denial, they mostly navigate the event with solidarity and surprising maturity. They ask each other how they’re feeling, report to their part-time jobs and assure one another they’ll be OK.
Largely absent is the gunman. He’s an archetypal school shooter: a quiet loner in a hoodie “who some of us might have been friends with, who we might have dated if he’d ever moved to speak a word, if he’d thought to join the Art Club or Mock Trial, if he’d ever taken off the headphones that became his armor once we entered seventh grade.”
It’s a daring omission. In the awful phenomenon of mass shootings, figuring out the killer’s motive becomes a national preoccupation. Perhaps the most successful work of literary fiction yet to explore a school shooting, Lionel Shriver’s 2003 “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” took us through the killer’s life from conception to massacre from his mother’s point of view, and offered up a smorgasbord of motives — everything from the mother’s emotional distance to pure evil. Valente eschews that psychological speculation for a story that looks more Stephen King-esque as it advances: Halloween and the homecoming dance are approaching, and the fires are looking less like arson and more like paranormal phenomenon.
The book’s anaphora-heavy style also gives pause. Valente writes in fragments, often using the same word or phrase to begin three or more sentences in a row. While sometimes this is effective in driving home the obsessiveness of trauma and grief, often it is simply monotonous, and amplifies empty sonic words and weak imagery.
The word “vulnerable” is used often.Against the backdrop of the war on terror, Daniel Pearl is executed and weapons of mass destruction are nowhere to be found. There’s a sense that what is happening in St. Louis, an island of frozen custard, Cardinals and KDHX in a Midwestern sea of corn, is happening on a grander, even more terrifying scale. The tone is one of constant but unfocused dread.
“Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down” sets itself a difficult task and doesn’t quite fulfill it. Still Anne Valente is an ambitious author to watch.
Kelsey Ronan is a St. Louis editor.
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