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Guest Review | Rachel Goldblatt | The Bell in the Lake, Lars Mytting | MacLehose Press

“And this also”, said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”

 This epigraph, taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, sets the tone for Lars Mytting’s sweeping investigation of legend, superstition, and the effects of industrial and ideological change on a small, secluded village in rural Norway. Marlow’s famous statement evokes both an image of literal darkness and ideas about uncivilised nations and their conquest by other – more powerful – empires: both notions are integral to this powerful contemporary narrative that is rooted in history.

It is 1880. Europe is undergoing vast and rapid industrial change. Britain has introduced “standard time”, while “Norway was facing unsettled times and major changes” and has to deal with “inventions and changes in politics, [as] a new era was on its way.” However, despite the “odour of modern transport – raw sea, machine oil and coal smoke” in Norwegian cities and ports, the village of Butangen, miles from the nearest town and overlooking Lake Løsnes, is stuck in the past.

Old Norse faith abounds over and above Christianity, and here, we are told, “change came slowly. The village was 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.” In the village “time was irrelevant,” and the villagers “carried on the work that others had died doing, which they knew an unborn child would continue.” Although some villagers do manage to get away – “such short lives, so many emigrating to America, yet the village was still overpopulated” – Butangen is, as it were, a dark place. Indeed, Norwegians are later called “primitive” by a patronising burgomaster in Dresden who is “surrounded by brilliant city planning, modern maps of the world, cafés and a fully developed railway system.”

Myths reflect the values of the cultures that create them. The village church, dating back to 1170, “was richly decorated with motifs from the ancient pagan faith [. . .] a kind of Viking chieftain’s hall with a veneer of Christianity, and the woodcarvers spent long summers decorating it with serpents and other familiar ornaments from the Norse times.”  It is steeped in history and local legend and lies at the heart of the narrative. It houses two silver bells believed by the locals to ring out ominously to warn of bad things afoot made by a pair of conjoined twins, Halfrid and Gunhild Henke, whose story begins the novel. They also wove beautiful and mysterious tapestries, the most famous of which depicted Skråpånatta, the “locals’ version of the Day of Judgement,” referring to Old Norse mythology.

Just as the villagers’ character avoided dilution by strangers, so this hidden medieval masterpiece remained untouched by fads or fashion. The decorations were not wiped away when the Reformation stripped God’s houses bare, and Pietism never set its claws into the furniture and fixtures. The eight dragon heads continued to snarl towards the sky, and the outer walkway and walls released the fragrance of centuries of thorough tarring.”

Flash forward to the present day, and we meet Astrid Henke, a local girl and descendant of the conjoined twins, who longs to escape from the restrictive, uneventful life in the village where all that is expected of her is to have children and work on the family farm. She rejects two offers of marriage “precisely because it would all be the same,” and secretly dreams of breaking free of her daily drudgery to travel and achieve success on her own terms.

The arrival of Kai Schweigaard, a forward-thinking Norwegian pastor who is shocked by the dilapidated church and archaic beliefs and customs of the parishioners, ignites something in Astrid; a sharpness and inquisitiveness that lay dormant beneath her quiet way of life in the village. Schweigaard embarks on a mission to modernise the parish and bring “enlightenment, reason, guidance” to its inhabitants. He arranges to sell the ancient Stave church to a group of German architects in Dresden who want to put it in a museum.

This prompts the arrival of Gerhard Schönauer, a young German architect tasked with overseeing the church’s dismantling and safe journey back to Germany. As Astrid learns of the plan to remove the church, and as the bells begin to ring, the fates and lives of these three individuals become impossibly intertwined. Each is faced with making a choice about their own future, impacting that of the village, though the extent to which they have control over their fate is questionable.

Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel is about light vs. dark. The group of architects who want to preserve the church – “enlightened men with fine phrases and continental habits” – are entirely different to the villagers who are, in a literal and philosophical sense, stuck in the dark ages; a freezing congregation “fumbling in semi-darkness”.  Astrid is captivated by a vision of gas street lighting and the frontage of a hotel terrasse; her mind is illuminated by the arrival of two enlightened European men in remote Butangen. Her intellectual and emotional awakening, and desperate desire for a different kind of life, is made all the more moving by the stark contrast between her existence before and after the arrival of the two men, and the light and dark imagery that illustrate these changes.

“Rumours are the seeds of legends, light enough to spread on the wind, and quick to grow.”

 Mytting examines this statement: how are legends started? Who believes them and why? Are we wrong to do so, or can they explain and give reason to strange events? Mytting’s exploration of the answers to these and other questions results in a delightful immersion for the reader. The mystical otherworldliness of the village is convincing and captivating. The sense of the past still existing in the present reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s haunted poems. Eerie shivers and ghostly whispers of bygone times and people ripple throughout the novel.

Mytting was catapulted onto the international stage with his hugely popular Norwegian Wood (2011), and cemented his reputation as a writer of fiction with The Sixteen Trees of the Somme (2014). The Bell in a Lake is Lars Mytting’s latest novel and the first book in a new historical fiction trilogy. He deftly handles the abundance of material and information at his disposal. The narrative never feels unclear or overly heavy – a feat for a four-hundred-page novel in which history, religion and Norwegian folklore all play an important role as they underpin his artful storytelling. He asks questions and suggests answers, but leaves much up to the reader to interpret and consider.

The novel is structured in short chapters with fable-like names – The Artillery Officer’s SonThe Girls Who Shared a Skin ; Passion’s Braid – which compelled me to search for morals and messages in each one, making for a more inquisitive and alert reading experience. The stories in the book are based on local tales recounted to the author, as well as on ancient legends about Stave churches; these unique structures are made entirely from wood, and were built by the Vikings on the arrival of Christianity. The richness of this history comes through beautifully in the novel. I learned much about Norwegian culture and absorbed the atmosphere and spirit of the place and its people.

Meaning and nuance get lost in translation, or so the theory goes, but in this instance, I question the veracity of that opinion since the prose is so powerfully immersive and sensorial. Deborah Dawkin’s flowing translation subtly captures local dialects with a lightness of touch that feels utterly natural.

This is a powerful, intelligent book that would be perfect for a book club read. It really makes you think, the mythology is guaranteed to spark a wide-ranging discussion and the character  Astrid is both endearing and exasperating in her struggle to escape conformity. The way she’s at times frustratingly naïve, and at other moments wise and worldly, feels deeply human; best demonstrated when she’s out in nature. She stays with you long after finishing the novel.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting | Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin | MacLehose Press 400 pages £16.99 | ISBN-13: 9780857059406

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Lars Mytting and Deborah Dawkin discuss The Bell in the Lake and the art of translating historical fiction with Georgia de Chamberet as part of the Bridging the Divide series for The BookBlast® Podcast.

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