IN THE 1980s, many of us who held an interest in military history believed that, as that “Great War generation” died out, so would interest in the war. It would — like the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War — fade into “mere” past. Yet the Great War will not let us go. Indeed, as Lars Mytting’s elegant and generous novel draws out brilliantly, the War can never go away: not least because some sections of the old front line were so heavily bombed that they will be poisoned and unsafe for centuries to come.
Set in the early 1990s, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme is a stunning meditation on the way in which the traumas of war can be passed down through the generations. More particularly, Mytting explores whether reconciliation is possible when the “sins of the fathers” re-emerge in their offspring. If this is not strictly a religious book — although an elderly priest, at one point, acts as a confessor for the central character — it is a study in the possibilities of atonement in a post-religious age. Mytting’s achievement is to make familiar themes of intergenerational mistrust and trauma urgent and fresh. He does this by addressing them from an oblique and surprising angle.
At the heart of Mytting’s novel is the story of Edvard, a Norwegian farm boy with French heritage. Quietly and carefully, Edvard — as first-person narrator — reveals the layers of his family and personal story at a satisfyingly human and leisurely pace. From the opening act of Sixteen Trees, the reader is invited into a world with its own rhythms and purposes. Edvard is an orphan raised by his potato-farmer grandfather, Bestevar, in the isolated Norwegian village of Saksum. Bestevar is a man with secrets, who is disliked by the locals because he chose to fight for the Nazis rather than join the Norwegian Resistance in the Second World War.
Edvard’s life is cloaked in mystery. In 1971, when Edvard was still an infant, his parents were killed by unexploded and unclearable ordinance left over from the Somme battles of the summer and autumn 1916. The sudden death of Bestevar 20 years later acts as a trigger for Edvard to investigate the circumstances of both his parents’ death and his own disappearance in the week after their deaths. Decades later, both the identity of his abductor and the reason that infant Edvard was abducted remain mysteries.
© MacLehose PressLars Mytting the author, best known for his top selling title Norwegian Wood.Edvard’s quest for answers takes him not only to the old Somme front line, but to the bleak and startling landscapes of the Shetland Islands. He heads there to search for traces of Bestevar’s estranged brother, Einar. Einar was presumed dead in 1943 while fighting the Nazis, but in the wake of Bestevar’s death Edvard discovers clues that suggest that Einar might have survived.
While in the Shetlands, Edvard meets the strange and supercilious Gwendolyn Winterfinch, whose family may have more to do with the fate of Einar and Edvard’s parents than she is prepared to admit.
If this novel achieves nothing else, it will make you want to revisit the Shetlands, where a whole year’s weather can be experienced in one day. The bleak and empty landscapes of Unst and Haaf Gruney supply abundant space for Mytting to investigate themes of isolation, suspicion, and mistrust. Shetland — with its combined Norwegian and British heritages — is a perfect setting for Edvard and Gwen to test out the limits of their trust in each other.
Perhaps surprisingly, the emotional core of this novel revolves around the figurative and literal possibilities of wood and trees. Mytting’s other notable work is Norwegian Wood, a non-fiction book about how Norwegians handle and work with wood. His insight into the life-cycles of trees and their cultural significance enables Mytting to control what might otherwise be a hoary and unbelievable tale.
Thus, wood is crucial to both plot and mood. Edvard’s quest gains traction when it is revealed that Einar — a master cabinet-maker — made an exquisite coffin for Bestevar’s funeral. It indicates not only that Einar may still be alive, but draws Edvard ever deeper into a trail that leads back to a series of bomb-scarred trees on the Somme. Slowly, the reader realises that it is these trees that will supply the answers to Edvard’s questions about his identity and of those around him. It is a beautiful conceit that has much to teach about how human ideas of meaning and “the exquisite” may be dependent on a brutal exploitation of nature.
The Great War has generated its fair share of memorable novels, from the Modernist brilliance of Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier through to post-modern tours de force such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Few, however, have managed to meditate so carefully on the abiding damage caused by conflict; I can think of none that stay so attentive to the long-term facts of the front line while avoiding the obvious tropes about it which we have come to expect.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Metropolitan University.
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting, translated by Paul Russell Garrett, is published by MacLehose at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-85705-606-1.
THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME — SOME QUESTIONS
Many of the characters in the novel live remote lives, often alone. How does loneliness feature?
“The smell of home. Of Mamma”. How does sense (smell, sound, and touch) trigger memory for Edvard? Are there objects, sounds, or smells that trigger memories for you?
There are several real-life examples of brothers, such as Einar and Bestefar, who fought on opposite sides of a war. Is there any way families might come back together after this?
“The wood carries the wounds of war.” Is the wood from 16 walnut trees more valuable because of the atrocity whose scars it bears? Why?
Edvard is concerned that he might, in uncovering his past, find “a truth I would not be able to handle”. What makes us fear finding out about the past?
What is the place of the sea, waves, and water in the novel? Do they contribute to the general atmosphere of mystery?
Much of the novel is spent searching for lost “treasure”. Do money and monetary value affect the relationships in the novel? How?
How is the concept of belonging explored in this novel?
Edvard describes himself and Gwen as “ambassadors for the inherited outrage”. Can such an inheritance be overcome?
“We were Norwegian”. What did you make of the mixed Norwegian and Scottish culture described by Mytting?
IN OUR next reading-groups page on 7 December, we will print extra information about our next book. This is My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. It is published by Penguin Classics at £9.99 (£9); 978-0-141-19056-3.
My Name is Asher Lev is the story of Asher, a Hasidic Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s. His father works for the rabbi of their congregation, regularly travelling the world at his request. His mother is mourning the death of her brother. Asher is a talented artist, but his artistic endeavours — and particularly his artistic subjects — are something that his devout family and community find difficult to support. His art seems, at best, frivolous, and at worst sacrilegious. Asher finds himself caught between two futures: one supporting his family and remaining within their religious community, and the other pursuing his artistic talent.
Born in the Bronx, New York, to an Orthodox Jewish family, Chaim Potok (1929-2002) was discouraged from writing and reading secular literature. None the less, he decided to become a writer after reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. After completing a BA in English Literature, he studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and was ordained a Conservative rabbi. He later completed a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. A prolific writer, his published works include eight novels; novellas, short stories, and plays; and three children’s books, as well as several works of non-fiction.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
January: The Song of Hild by Vibeke Vasbo
February: The Librarian by Salley Vickers