Anne Valente | Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins)

Valente’s prose is unique and breathless, full of eloquent turns of phrases and insightful observations.

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There’s a school shooting at the beginning of St. Louis native/New Mexico resident Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Caleb Raynor was that kid: the one nobody really noticed, no one knew anything about. One day he brought a gun to school, where he shot and killed 28 students and seven teachers, staff members, and administrators.

But the school shooting isn’t the main focus here—really, could things get more shocking? Turns out they can. Three days after the shooting, the first of a series of house fires takes place. One by one, the homes of the victims burn down, and each one’s the same: no evidence of foul play, no struggle—no bodies.

The story takes place in Midvale County, a fictional suburban community of St. Louis. While the citizens grapple with the pain and senselessness of a teenager committing such a mass atrocity, they are faced with even more compounding losses as, one by one, the families of those killed at Lewis Clark High School are killed themselves. Student funerals become family ones, as a city in mourning is never quite able to recover.

valente_our-heartsOur Hearts Will Burn Us Down is told from the point of view of a collective “we”: the four yearbook staffers—Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina—charged with memorializing the school year. But how? Where do they start? And when do they get to mourn? In addition to the collective, we get the third-person perspective of each of these students.

Valente’s prose is unique and breathless, full of eloquent turns of phrases and insightful observations (“the ink-spill of the Midwestern sky”; “reporters locusting our streets”). She seduces readers into the book by making them care about these characters: imperfect, grieving, confused, searching. With the collective, we, too, are residents of the community, participants in the story:

We stayed in. We did not move. We paralyzed ourselves to helplessness, our blinds closed. We feared opening our front doors to find that the world was what we imagined: an axis beyond tilt. We stiffened at sirens, swirled colors passing by our windows, the sound of emergency. We closed our doors to police cars and reporters locusting our streets, to neighbors peering from behind curtains and emerging only to grab their mail.

Valente is truly a unique voice in fiction today, knitting together words in ways no one else could. She tells a compelling, engaging, and frightening tale, and she does so in a way that keeps us turning the pages, wanting to know more, wanting to solve the growing mystery.

A fun closing fact: Anne Valente was PLAYBACK:stl’s first-ever intern well over a decade ago. We’re so proud of her success! | Laura Hamlett

About Laura Hamlett 466 Articles
Laura Hamlett is the Managing Editor of PLAYBACK:stl. In a past life, she was also a music publicist and band manager. Besides music, books, and other forms of popular culture, she's a fan of the psychology behind true crime and violent criminals. Ask her about mass murder...if you dare.

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