The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting (trans. by Deborah Dawkin) #BookReview

The Bell in the LakeAbout the Book

Norway, 1880. Young, inquisitive Astrid is unlike the other girls in the secluded village at the end of the valley. She dreams of a life that consists of more than marrying, having children, and eventually dying from hard work in the fields. And then the young Pastor Kai Schweigaard comes into her life.

Kai Schweigaard has taken over the small parish of Butangen, with its 700-year-old stave church. The old church is one of the few remaining examples of early Christianisation, with effigies of pagan deities carved into the wooden walls. And the bells – two sister bells forged in the 16th century, in memory of the conjoined twins Halfrid and Gunhild Hekne – are said to have supernatural powers. Legend has it that they ring of their own accord when danger is imminent.

But the Pastor wants to tear it down, to replace it with a more modern, larger church. He has already contacted the Kunstakademie in Dresden, which is sending its talented architecture student Gerhard Schönauer to oversee the removal of the church and its reconstruction in the German city. For Astrid this is a provocation too far.

But Astrid falls in love with Gerhard. He is so different from the young men in Butangen: modern, cosmopolitan, elegant, he even smells different. And she must make a choice: for her homeland and the pastor, or for an uncertain future in Germany. Then the bells begin to ring . . .

Format: ebook (400 pages) Publisher: Quercus
Publication date: 19th March 2020  Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

I loved the author’s first novel, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, so I was excited to learn about his new book, The Bell in the Lake, especially since it is the first in a planned trilogy of historical novels. The book is translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin.

1880 is a time of change in the world. However, very little has changed in Butangen, or ever seems likely to. “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.” That tension between old and new, change and tradition forms the heart of the novel.

For Astrid Hekne, with her ‘restless mind’, real life, as she sees it, is happening elsewhere. She finds it hard to accept the life path she seems expected to follow. “Tradition favoured girls with course hands who toiled silently as the grindstone turned, who gave birth without fuss…” In a way, Astrid represents the meeting point between the old and the new. Her keen intelligence tells her there is so much more to life, even if she’s not quite sure what it is. “The only thing she knew was that she was searching for something, and that whatever it was, it was not in the village.”

Initially, the new Pastor, Kai Schweigaard, seems to offer the chance of escape for which Astrid is searching. She trades information about the village with him in return for access to newspapers which she reads greedily, grabbing “the outside world with both hands.” The attraction appears to be mutual. Rarely has the folding of a tablecloth been the source of such sexual tension. However, when Schweigaard’s intentions for the old church and, more importantly, for the Sister Bells, become clear, Astrid’s feelings change.

The arrival of Gerhard Schönauer to oversee the demolition of the church creates waves in a number of ways. For one, he is the first human being from the outside world Astrid has ever encountered. Furthermore, he recognizes the old church for the work of craftsmanship it is and its significance for the village, whereas Kai Schweigaard sees it only as a relic of a bygone age. A clash is inevitable and when it comes it has dramatic consequences.

Given the book is translated from another language, I found it interesting that a feature of the book is language and meaning – and its limitations. For example, Kai Schweigaard relies on Astrid Hekne to interpret for him the ‘peculiarities’ of the local people, especially when they are trying to outwit him. And Gerhard Schönauer’s native language is German whereas Astrid’s is Norwegian but using a dialect unique to the area in which certain words simply aren’t in the vocabulary. “Love. This word, which did not exist in her dialect… She could show it, through loyalty and devotion, and through actions, but to say it was impossible.” There are intimate scenes as Gerhard and Astrid teach each other words from their native languages – the word for lip, for love, for kiss.

I loved Astrid as a character for her independent spirit, resourcefulness and questioning mind. Faced with adversity, her response is to, “Collect herself with the same strength that the women before her had collected themselves, through avalanches and floods, tuberculosis and dysentery, frost-ruined harvests and barn fires.

At times, the novel has a fairy tale or fable like quality, especially in the opening section recounting the story of how the Sister Bells came to be cast. Overall, it is an intriguing mix of myth and romance that explores the tension between the modern world and traditional ways and poses the question whether ‘moving with the times’ always brings about improvement and enlightenment.

Given events towards the end of the book, it will be interesting to see how the story unfolds in the next instalment in the trilogy. In the meantime, if (like me) the book has made you curious to find out more about Norwegian stave churches, you can find information and some wonderful pictures here.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley.

In three words: Atmospheric, dramatic, mystical

Try something similar: Things Bright and Beautiful by Anbara Salam

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About the Author

Lars Mytting, a novelist and journalist, was born in Fåvang, Norway, in 1968. His novel The Sixteen Trees of the Somme was awarded the Norwegian National Booksellers’ Award and has been bought for film. Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way has become an international bestseller, and was the Bookseller Industry Awards Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2016. The Bell in the Lake, the first in a trilogy, was a number one bestseller in Norway and nominated for the Norwegian National Bookseller’s Award 2018.

Connect with Lars
Website | Goodreads

About the Translator

Deborah Dawkins originally trained in theatre at Drama Centre, London before turning to translation. Her translations include The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik and Buzz Aldrin: What Happened to You in All the Confusion by Johan Harstad, shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards in 2012. She is the co-translator of eight plays by Ibsen for Penguin Classics, and is presently working on a PhD about the life and work of the Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.


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