LARS MYTTING made his name a few years ago by publishing a bestseller, Norwegian Wood, on how to fell trees and store logs. It was part of the worldwide eco-therapeutic library that was, and still is, increasing by the day. In it, he discerns “wood age” in retired men: the inordinately long periods of time that Norwegians can spend with their axe preparing for the coming winter. Mytting doesn’t seem to have reached this point yet, as he is now publishing equally wholesome and elegant novels. The Bell in the Lake is the first of a planned trilogy.
It is set in 1880, in Butangen, a place described as “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”. At the heart of the community is a stave church, whose congregation are as wooden, cold, and semi-pagan as the architecture.
Many years ago, a father had commissioned two bells in memory of his deceased conjoined twin daughters, and the bells are still in the church and said to toll before a disaster. This is just one of the many local legends that weave themselves through the poverty, isolation, and unforgiving climate of the area to make existence more bearable.
A young priest comes along and, with a German architect, decides to help to modernise the village and to dismantle the church, in the face of huge resistance. A 20-year-old woman, Astrid Hekne, who yearns for a life elsewhere, is drawn to these two men and their pioneering, adventurous personalities. And so begins a triangular relationship of significance for each of them. One wonders, as they discover more of each other, whether the bells ought to start ringing.
The author cleverly immerses the reader in a community whose members are defined by the past; memory is their mother and their motivator. We feel its power. Here, ancient legends are as strong as any modern fact, and the fluidity of Mytting’s prose eases us seamlessly from one to another as the narrative takes shape. It would be very wrong not to praise Deborah Dawkin’s excellent translation.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Honorary Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.
The Bell in the Lake
Maclehose Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30