- Book: The Bell In The Lake
- Location: Butangen
- Author: Lars Mytting
The author’s previous book – The Sixteen Trees of the Somme – was one of my absolutely favourite books of 2017, and a TripFiction Book Club read in September 2018. I therefore started reading The Bell In The Lake with much excitement and anticipation. I was not in any way disappointed – it is an extremely well written (and well translated) story of village life in Norway at the end of the 19th Century. Already I can safely already say it is one of my books of 2020!
The village in question is Butangen in Southern Norway. It is a real place with real history. It is famed for its Stave (timber frame) church – originally built in 1270 and rebuilt in 1631. It fell into disrepair, and was finally restored to something like its original glory in 1921. The church had twin bells – legend has it that these were cast at the behest of their father after the death of Siamese twin girls in the 16th Century. The girls lived joined together from the hip downwards for many years and wove intricate works of art with their four hands. They then died on the same day. When the bells ring by themselves, it is said to warn of a coming disaster.
This is the background against which Lars Mytting has created his novel. The fiction builds beautifully on the history and the folklore.
The book is set in the 1880s. Kai Schweigaard is the new pastor in the village. He is energetic and forward thinking, and determined to replace the old cold and leaking church with a modern structure. But there is no money to build it… He conceives the idea of selling the church piece by piece to the royal house of Saxony in Dresden – to be rebuilt in the city as an indication of their concern for the historic and beautiful. The price to be paid is some five times the scrap value of the church. Gerhard Schönauer, an architectural student from Dresden, is sent to supervise the dismantlement and labelling of the church prior to its transportation.
Central to the story is Astrid Hekne, a girl in her 20s who comes from the same family as the Siamese twins born all those year ago. She can, just about, live with the destruction of the church – but she cannot contemplate the removal of the bells to a new city many, many miles away. She has an embryonic relationship with Kai, and an actual relationship with Gerhard. She plots for the bells to stay in Butangen. But the story does not end well.
What is so wonderful about The Bell In The Lake is the way Lars Mytting gets under the skin of life well over 100 years ago in a remote Norwegian village – the way the villagers again pick up on old norse mythology and folklore as their church is dismantled, the sheer ingenuity (and strength) required to move the church by horse and sledge to the nearest railway station, the contrast in the villagers’ lives between the biting cold and paucity of supplies in winter and the warmth and abundance of summer.
And a final word about Deborah Dawkin. She has done a superb job as the translator. As we have said many times before, a translation can make or break the English language edition of a foreign novel. Deborah is up there with the best. The book waxes lyrical.