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The Bell in the Lake: a review

by Trevor Moore The Bell in the Lake

Lars Mytting, MacLehose, 2020 (Gyldendal Norsk, 2018), ISBN 978 0 85705 938 3, 392pp

This is Lars Mytting’s second work of fiction. His first was 2017’s The Sixteen Trees of the Somme which I reviewed, I am surprised to see, in these columns in September 2017. My word, how time flies and how the world has changed since then. And it has changed even more since the late nineteenth century when the story told in this book is set. Janice’s Moruya Books is open again which is a sure signal that the world is regaining some sort of balance. It was there that I found The Sixteen Trees of the Somme and it was there that I found The Bell in the Lake. When I reviewed The Sixteen Trees of the Somme I said that I had picked it out because the author had written a work called Norwegian Wood and because it started with a quote from Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man. The Bell in the Lake also starts with a quote but this time it is from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “And this also,” said Milo suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”. Mytting clearly likes bleakness: like its predecessor, the novel is set in a landscape that you are pleased that someone else inhabits.

I could not describe this a tale with a happy ending, but it is at least a tale with an ending. It is brilliantly told and wonderfully paced. It is, as they say, a page turner. Whenever I read a translation it made me wonder what it would be like to read it in the original, in this case, Norwegian. How much, if anything, has been lost in the translation. The translator of The Bell in the Lake is Deborah Dawkin and when I looked for information about her, I found that The Bell in the Lake is Volume 1 of a trilogy called The Sister Bells that will develop into a grand family saga. The sister bells are at the centre of this book; one of them is “the bell in the lake”. They were cast to commemorate conjoined twins born in the remote Norwegian village of Butangen, where the winter is hard and the people poor and superstitious. Mytting writes, “The sister bells had neither a sad nor fearful ring. At the core of each chime was a vibrancy, a promise of a better spring, a resonance coloured by beautiful, sustained vibrations.” But this is a story the revolves around the bells and around the ancient church in which they hang and the poverty, isolation and the unpredictable climate of Butangen. Butangen is “twenty years behind its neighbouring villages, which were thirty years behind Norway’s towns and cities, which were fifty years behind the rest of Europe”.

A stave church - Photograph: N Cirani/De Agostini via Getty Images)

The church in Butangen is an old mediaeval stave (or wooden) church, constructed on timber with elements of old Norse superstitions interwoven with Christianity. Academic interests in Dresden are concerned that these old churches are being demolished and wish to preserve this one by dismantling, shipping it to Dresden and reconstructing it. They send a young architect and draughtsman, Gerhard Schonauer, to oversee this project. Butangen has a new parson Kai Schweigaard who is struggling to gain acceptance in the community but who wants to build a more modest church for the community. To achieve this he has sold the old church to the Dresden people.

This is all excitement for a local community that is isolate from the rest of the world and that is not used to visitors. Of course, to make a story that has two leading men, you need a woman. The woman is Astrid Hekne who is descended from the family of the conjoined twins and, therefore, spiritually connected to the sister bells. She knows that there is more to life than that offered by Butangen. So, on the surface the story is about the love triangle that inevitably forms and the consequences that flow from it.

But the book is more than that. Mytting, through his translator, offers us descriptions of the bleakness of Norwegian life in the winter that draws us in. There is always an underlying current of culture and superstition that the newcomers, Gerhard Schonauer and Kai Schweigaard can never come to terms with and will never be part of. Interwoven with the cultural backdrop are the traditions of Astrid’s family.

The Bell in the Lake is a wonderful read. If you read and enjoyed The Sixteen Trees of the Somme then this is definitely a book for you. And even if you didn’t, it’s still a book for. No doubt Janice has your copy waiting for you when you call into Moruya Books.

Post script: Mytting’s two other books are works of non-fiction. Norwegian Wood is what its title implies. Its subtitle is Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Norwegian Way. His other book is The Norwegian Wood Activity Book. He clearly loves his timber.

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