Book review: The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting
The Bell in the Lake - Lars Mytting
Set in a small remote poor farming community in Butangen in the frozen far north of Norway around 1880, The Bell in the Lake is the first book of a proposed trilogy that it would appear is going to develop into a grand family saga. There's no need for any reader concerned about committing themselves to a long drawn out tale, as this first book is simply wonderfully absorbing and complete on its own terms, but the likelihood is that you will be entranced by the world the Mytting depicts so lovingly and be enchanted and intrigued to see where he takes it next.
Gerhard Schonauer is an apprentice architect and an accomplished draughtsman who has been sent to a remote Norwegian village that has a superb example of one of the few remaining medieval wooden stave churches in the region. The new parson Kai Schweigaard wants to build a more modest church that can better serve the people of the village and has sold the old church for it to be transported and reconstructed in the German city of Dresden. Schonauer's task is to prepare sketches of the building, figure out the peculiarities of its construction and oversee and organise its dismantling before it is reassembled in Dresden exactly as stood in Butangen.
The arrival of the German is something of a novelty for an isolated community with little experience of the outside world, particularly for 20 year old Astrid Hekne. She has refused offers of marriage from two suitors for fear of being tied down forever in Butangen, knowing that there's more to life and wanting to experience it. She has set her sights on the new parson but the match doesn't seem an equal one and would likely be regarded with disapproval by the villagers. When Gerhard arrives the dream of at least learning about a life outside Butangen captures her imagination and there's a mutual interest there.
In some respects this love triangle forms the basis for the movement and dynamic of The Bell in the Lake but it's much more than a romance story. In fact, in a way, Mytting does much the same thing as Gerhard Schonauer, finding a way to get inside the strange designs of life in this region in the late 19th century, cut off from the advances taking place elsewhere, and reconstruct it into something we can relate to in the present. It's a subtle portrait of cultural, social and personal interaction that navigates (and will seemingly navigate further) a line through history without being tied to historical or political events, but a rather more intimate portrait of the people of a nation.
That might sound pretentious or even a little unexciting, but there is something deeper here that Mytting taps into that draws the reader in. The author's ability to delve into the lifestyles, attitudes, desires and aspirations (or lack of aspirations) of this community, tied into local history and superstition, is fascinating and feels utterly authentic to the period. The conflicts and the problems that arise have less to do with social and cultural differences than personal ones that run up against family backgrounds and old traditions.
That family history goes back a long time, and The Bell in the Lake takes in local myths and legends, particularly one relating to the famous bells in the church that were forged in memory of a pair of conjoined twins in the Henke family. The resonance of those bells and their legend carries a long way in The Bell in the Lake and, superbly translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, Mytting's writing here is such that it will resonate also the heart of the reader and undoubtedly continue to resonate in the sequels.