The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

Translated by Paul Russell Garrett

Reviewed by Harriet

For me my mother was a scent, she was a warmth. A leg I clung to. A breath of something blue; a dress I remember her wearing. She fired me into the world with a bowstring, I told myself, and when I shaped my memories of her, I did not know if they were true, I simply created her as I thought a son should remember his mother.

This lovely, sometimes sad, always thought-provoking book is about one man’s search for his personal history, for identity, and for the parents he lost as a tiny child. Edvard Hirifjell has been brought up by his grandfather, Bestefar, in a remote farm on the coast of Norway. Together they grow potatoes and keep sheep. All Edvard knows about his life before this is that both his parents died in France and that he, aged three, mysteriously disappeared for four days before he turned up in the office of a local doctor.

Almost as soon as the story begins, Bestefar dies, and Edvard discovers that a beautifully carved coffin has been waiting for him for many years. Made from glorious flame birch, it arrived one day, apparently sent by the master wood-carver Einar, Bestefar’s brother, who has always been supposed to be dead. Here is a mystery, and others soon appear when Edvard starts reading through his grandfather’s papers. He discovers things he never knew about his mother’s French ancestry: she was born in Ravensbruck concentration camp and adopted by another Frenchwoman when her birth mother died. And he discovers that somewhere, either in France or in the Shetland islands, where Einar lived for many years, there is a mysterious and valuable inheritance, the nature of which is not revealed. He soon realises he has no choice – he must travel to Shetland and see what he can discover about his family history and the great-uncle he has never known.

Now begins a story of tremendous twists and turns, and one of huge challenges. Central to the unravelling of the mystery is Einar’s fantastic skill as a wood-carver and his passion for beautiful trees. Back home in Norway there’s a grove of flame birches, carefully nurtured and treated to produce exquisite markings on the wood, and, when Edvard eventually ends up in France, where his parents died, he finds the remains of a grove of sixteen walnut trees, again producing remarkable wood, situated in the very WW1 Somme battleground where they were apparently killed by an unexploded shell of poison gas.  Finally in France he discovers the secrets that have hung over his family for decades. But it’s not till he returns to Shetland that the true nature of his inheritance is finally revealed.

Interwoven into all this is Edvard’s relationship with Gwen, the enigmatic young woman he meets in Shetland. Despite his prior commitment to Hanne, the girl he left behind in Norway, he’s increasingly drawn to Gwen, and despite her attempts to cover up her true identity he soon guesses that her family ties are inextricably linked to his own search for the truth of his own history and of his inheritance.

There’s so much to love in this novel. Mytting’s prose is frequently beautifully lyrical and he conveys a wonderful sense of place – I’ve never been particularly drawn to visiting Scandinavia but he makes Norway’s summer sound wonderfully lush and attractive:

Redcurrant bushes dense with berries, the flag-stoned path leading to the swimming hole at the river, the creek which cut through the potato fields and disappeared from sight behind the barn. The fruit trees, the pea pods that dangled like half moons when we got close to them, so plentiful that we could fill up on them without taking a step. The dark-blue fruit of the plum trees, the sagging raspberry bushes just waiting for us to quickly fill two small plates and fetch some caster sugar and cream.

Then there’s the bleak, harsh land and threatening seas of the Shetland Islands, and the beautiful but still war-ravaged landscapes of the Somme. And there are the people – Edvard’s two lovers, lovely, innocent Hanne and difficult, secretive Gwen – the old Shetlander Agnes, whose unrequited love for Einar has survived even his death – and of course the people who are no longer living, Einar himself, and Edvard’s parents, slowly emerging from the shadows of the past.

So all in all this is a novel of tremendous depth and richness, and it will undoubtedly be on my list of best of 2017. It’s already a best seller in Scandinavia and has been bought for film, though please don’t wait for that, as this novel really has to be read to get the full beauty and fascination of the storytelling. This is the first of Lars Mytting’s novels to be published in English, though he became a surprise bestseller two years ago when he published his non-fiction book, Norwegian Wood: Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. And he has been incredibly well-served by his translator, Paul Russell Garrett. So I need hardly say that this is highly recommended.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Lars Mytting, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, trans. Paul Russell Garrett (Maclehose Press, 2017). 978-0857056047, 480pp., hardback.

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