REVIEW

Lars Mytting has set The Bell in the Lake in a remote Norwegian farming community in 1880

  • The Bell in the Lake, by Lars Mytting. MacLehose. $32.99.

Norwegian novelist and journalist Lars Mytting had a surprise bestseller in 2015 with Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.

It sold over half a million copies, was made into a 12-hour TV programme and won the Non-Fiction Book of the Year at both the Norwegian Bookseller Industry and the British Book Industry Awards in 2016.

Mytting has said it can be read both as a user manual and a "book of dreams".

In 2014, his novel The Sixteen Trees of the Somme also won a Norwegian National Booksellers' Award and has been commissioned for filming.

Now, imaginatively translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, comes The Bell in the Lake, the first in a trilogy.

The story is set in 1880 in the remote farming community of Butangen in the north of Norway.

Gerhard Schnauer, a talented apprentice architect, has been sent to Butangen, tasked with drawing detailed pictures of the ancient parish church and organising its transportation to Dresden, after its sale by the ambitious new pastor Kai Schweigaard.

The church, with Christian and Norse murals, is renowned as one of the few remaining medieval wooden stave churches in the region and its sale will allow for the building of a smaller warmer church.

The church is also renowned for its two large silver "Sister" bells commemorating the short life of two conjoined twins, Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, who, in the 16th century, became famous for their tapestries, especially of Judgement Day.

In 1880, 20-year-old Astrid Hekne, a family descendant, dreams of escaping Butangen, a community riven by poverty and superstition, with characters defined by the Norwegian harsh winters.

In winter in the church, the font ice has to be broken for baptisms, while at the 1880 New Year's Church Service an elderly worshipper, Klara, dies with her cheek frozen to the wall.

Astrid finds that both Kai and Gerhard are attracted to her, but Gerhard seems a more attractive proposition, as does Dresden.

Astrid and Gerhard have a secret relationship; Astrid becomes pregnant with what the local soothsayer says will be twins.

Mytting uses the relationships between the Astrid, Kai and Gerhard to explore the clash between local tradition and national modernity.

Astrid's fate and the impact on the local community of the demolition of the church, and especially the removal of the bells, provide the strong narrative fault lines.

Lars Mytting intertwines love, tragedy and Nordic reality in an engrossing and beautifully constructed novel, exemplifying historical fiction at its best.

This story Tale of love, tragedy, history and Nordic reality first appeared on The Canberra Times.