Translated by Deborah Dawkin
Review by Harriet
Lars Mytting, a Norwegian author, has had great acclaim for his two previous books – the non-fiction Norwegian Wood, a surprise bestseller about stacking and burning your logs, and the novel The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, which I enjoyed tremendously and reviewed here. Now, three years later, comes his second novel, The Bell in the Lake. Set in a remote village in Norway in 1880, this evocative book combines ancient memories and practices with a telling account of how modern ways of living and thinking are slowly making their way into this tiny backwater.
The story begins in medieval Gudbrandsdalen, a small valley village far from civilisation, made up mainly of farmsteads. The biggest of these, Butangen, was owned by the Hekne family, whose wealth, like that of all the neighbouring farms, was made up of their large collection of silver. It was here, all those centuries ago, that a woman gave birth to a pair of conjoined twins. Against all odds the sisters survived into adulthood, and when they died, within a few hours of each other, their father had a pair of bells made for the church, with silver mixed into the bronze during casting.
The Sister Bells had neither a sad nor a fearful ring. At the core of each chime was a vibrancy, a promise of a better spring, a resonance coloured by beautiful, sustained vibrations. Their sound penetrated deeply, creating mirages in the mind and touching the most hardened of men.
Now the narrative moves forward to 1880. The world is almost on the brink of the twentieth century, but the village is still ’20 years behind its neighbouring villages, which were 30 years behind Norway’s towns and cities, which were 50 years behind the rest of the world’. Into this remote outpost comes a young pastor, Kai Schweigaard, who has modern ideas and is determined to bring change to the village. His radical plan is to get rid of the village’s ancient church and replace it with a modern building. Fortunately, he will be able to finance the new church by selling the old one. For the village church, still complete with the Sister Bells, is a 700-year-old stave church with historic elements going back to pagan times. He already has a buyer: the Dresden Academy of Art, which has a project of studying these ancient structures, some of which are to be dismantled and rebuilt in Germany. So, into the village comes Gerhard Schonauer, a young trainee architect with a talent for drawing. His task is to draw the church and its many historical features, and to oversee the dismantling of the building.
These two men, well-educated and intelligent, could easily become friends. But, leaving aside the pastor’s passion for the new and Gerhard’s reverence for the old, another element soon enters their relations. At the Heckne farmstead lives the young descendent of the family, 20-year-old Astrid. Bright, and full of curiosity about the outside world, Astrid has attracted Schweigaard’s attention, and she is drawn to what she thinks of as ‘the fizz in him, like a bottle of Yuletide brew’. Tentatively the two begin a friendship, which both are aware could lead to marriage. And so indeed it probably could have, but any plans they might make are swept away by the arrival of Gerhard. Though initially torn between the two men, Astrid quickly finds she has fallen in love with the young architect, and he with her. Their relationship must be carried on in secret, but soon she is dreaming of a new life in a big city, with all its attendant pleasures and challenges. Their plans for escape must be postponed until the old church is dismantled, and are even further delayed when Gerhardt is commissioned by the Academy to make drawings of all the stave churches in north Norway. All could still be well in the end, but a combination of factors brings about a tragic outcome.
A great deal of research went into the making of this impressive, immersive novel. It is partly based on real events, and it’s fascinatingly threaded through with ancient traditions and mythology. The church itself, wonderfully evoked through Mytting’s vivid, detailed descriptions, typifies much of this: there are pagan and Viking symbols carved into its elaborate woodwork, and even though Christian services are held there, the villagers adhere to many age-old customs and beliefs which they are unwilling to abandon. In many ways the Sister Bells stand for everything that is valued from the past, and their eventual fate is a cause of concern to Astrid and Gerhardt, leading to another absorbing strand in the narrative.
The bleak northern landscape, with its violently varied seasons, emerges almost as a character in its own right, and the changing climate has a part to play in the development of events. The people who inhabit it are brought vividly to life in a wholly credible way. There’s much to admire in this excellent novel, and much to learn about the past and the gradual incursion of new ideas. Mytting has said it will form the first of a planned trilogy. I for one will wait impatiently for the second volume.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Lars Mytting, The Bell in the Lake, translated by Deborah Dawkin (MacLehose, 2020). 978-0857059376, 400 pp., hardback.
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