Review: Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down
Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down by Anne Valente
Thirty-five mixtape. Thirty-five baby books of first words, first steps, first songs sung
in the bathtub among rubber toys. Thirty-five hearts that beat the center of a countless number of blinks, of twitches, of kicks and laughs and orgasms
and flinches, all of them unknowable now, all of them lost indeterminately to the halls of a high school.
Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, is a gripping tale that navigates the impact of extreme loss and tragedy within a community. Set in a suburb of St. Louis, the novel follows the events that take place after a school shooting mainly through the eyes of four students. Christina, Zola, Nick, and Matt are close friends, all involved in the school yearbook committee. Their job? Attempting to catalog a horrific school year that everyone wishes to forget, laying down in words and forever committing to memory those that have passed.
Amidst the flashbacks of Caleb Reynor passing through the halls, bullets ripping through classmates and teachers, the families of the deceased students are now being targeted and burned within their homes.
Adding mystery to the fray, this novel expertly weaves together the grief and guilt felt by a community, the questioning, the “what-if”s and what could have been, and the never-ending knife of memory and the pain it causes. The wide and ever-exhausting spectrum of human emotion is revisited countless times as individuals and the community at large attempt to deal with the overwhelming grief and guilt.
Character growth takes place throughout this entire novel: Zola battling anger over what she witnessed in the library and drowning in her grief; Nick holing up in his room and losing himself in his research on shootings and arson; Christina channeling her energy and anger into her relationship; and Matt, losing countless hours of sleep, unable to erase the image of shutting the eyes of Caroline Black as she bled out on the floor of the school hallway. We witness as the characters finally begin to talk about what they saw, finally begin to accept the accompanying emotions, begin to re-navigate relationships and sex and love, and start the arduous process of piecing their lives back together.
Looking to the mundane and ordinary, every-day objects, Anne Valente brings light to this horrific event through her incredibly detailed descriptions. Punctuating the story are sections of information on the human body, the flammability of certain objects, and the obituaries written by the yearbook committee. All make this novel entirely consuming. The audience is not only faced with the macrolevel tragedy of the shooting, but all the microscopic tragedies as well, ones that are reflected in ordinary objects viewed entirely differently by characters post-trauma. Rich descriptions, detailed writing, and the varied ways of dealing with tragedy truly bring this novel to life.
Flashbulb memory: the firing of so many synapses at once, a braid of cells.
Reviewed by Sabrina Easley