The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting, Maclehose Press, 2017, ISBN 978 0 85705 603 0, 403pp
This book is a translation from the original Norwegian text. You can never really know with a translation how much of the original book is lost or enhanced in the translation unless, of course, you speak both languages. I do not speak Norwegian; I cannot say a single word. The translator of this book is Paul Russell Garrett and the 2017 date above is that of the translation; the original Norwegian version was published in 2014. I picked this book out for two reasons, neither of them good but each, I thought, indicative of the likelihood that I should like it. The first reason was that Mytting’s previous book was called Norwegian Wood. I have not read it but I wondered if its title is a coincidence; is it a reference to The Beatles’ 1965 song of the same name? The second reason was that The Sixteen Trees of the Somme begins with a quote from Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, which is, of course, the ultimate drug song.
As it happens there are rock references scattered through the book. Within a few pages there is a reference to a band called The Alarm that few may have heard of. I saw The Alarm in 1986 at Wembley Stadium. They were playing support to INXS. That would have been a concert in its own right … but INXS were playing to support to Queen. Now, that was a concert. But The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is not a book about rock ’n’ roll or, indeed, popular culture in general. The central character is Edvard Hirifjell and his quest to find out where he came from or, rather, what happened to his parents. In 1971 when he was very small he had gone to France (that’s the Somme reference) with his parents. While there his parents died, perhaps murdered, and his grandfather’s brother, Sverre, brings him up. When Sverre dies Edvard discovers that a coffin for his remains had been delivered some years before his death. That sets Edvard off on a quest to find out what happened to his parents. That quest takes him from Norway to the Shetlands and to the Somme.
This is a wonderful book … almost a brilliant book. It is beautifully paced and its characters are wonderfully drawn. The sixteen trees in the title do not appear until over halfway through the book. The landscapes in the book are all bleak, even if they are home to people who love them. Edvard’s home is a potato farm in Norway where the wind blows and the snow falls and the winter days are short. The Shetlands are a place of austere, if somewhat damp and misty, beauty. The Somme, of course, is the location of a battle that saw 57,000 allied soldiers killed or wounded on the first day of the battle. Think about that; it is more than the entire population of Eurobodalla. Mytting’s depiction of these landscapes is sparse but detailed enough for the reader to get a feeling for the place. After reading Mytting’s descriptions one feels the urge to visit, or revisit, the places he talks about.
The story of Edvard’s quest is credible and engaging. There is a note at the back of the book that says that the book has been “bought for film”. It would make a cracking movie. Even though its pace is measured, this book is a page-turner. It’s a book that, when I was younger, I would have read all through the night to find out what happened. As it is, I am older and wiser and enjoyed the book the more for having paced my reading of it. It is a five star book.