The Bell in the Lake (Hachette, 2019, trans. Deborah Dawkin) is the latest novel from acclaimed Norwegian author Lars Mytting.
The story is set in rural Norway in 1880, which lags about fifty years behind the cities of Europe with their electric lights and medicine, and which is also suffering both a population boom and mass-emigration to places like North America and Australia.
The tale centres on an ancient stave church in the fictional village of Butangen, and the three people who wrestle over its fate. The formidable Astrid Hekne is a dutiful, principled, community-minded young worker of marriageable age, who is thirsty for knowledge and dreams of discovering the world beyond Butangen. Kai Schweigaard is an uppity, city-bred pastor, who wants to replace Butangen’s 700-year-old church with a new larger, austere one, and finally make his mark on the villagers, with their suspicions and superstitions. And Gerhard Schönauer is a German student architect sent to document and dismantle the stave church on behalf of his Dresden academic overlords, who has romantic dreams of commanding the esteem of his fellow architects and living a respectable upper middle class existence.
There’s just one problem: no one in Butangen has asked for these outlanders to take away the beautiful stave church, with its ancient pagan carvings and huge amount of history, and Astrid’ll be stuffed if they’re gonna take away the famed, magical Sister Bells, in which her grieving ancestor melted all of her family farm’s silver hundreds of years earlier.
What follows is a fascinating dissection of nineteenth century modernisation, class, culture, and the reach of Christianity as it both clashes with and complements lingering Old Norse traditions and beliefs. The way that Mytting writes Norway’s landscape, seasons and rural culture is both enriching and educational. The moments of ghostly magical realism gave me goosebumps. For the most part, this is a very well written (and well translated) book.
But now to the festival of recriminations: this was very fun to read… Right up until about 75% of the way through, when it becomes a miseryfest. At this point, all the worst tropes men employ when writing women come out of the woodwork. If it hadn’t already been a painfully male storyline (woman tries to seduce men in the single-minded pursuit of her selfless goal), it was both puzzling and disconcerting when Astrid Hekne’s (predictable) pregnancy makes her nothing more than a character in the men’s narratives. Previously an equal partner in the tale, she is subsumed, as her body and story become a plot point in the quest of the men.
I also found the anglicisation of the dialogue to be slightly annoying – I know that they have to differentiate between rural semi-literate villagers and their educated town and city counterparts, but the dialect that the translation gifted to Astrid and her Butangen comrades is a bit too rural Scotland, and it distracted from an otherwise enjoyable read.
But look, I loved reading this book. It’s a real adventure. In the midst of Mytting’s well-researched and heartfelt tale, the minor misogynistic misdemeanours did not overshadow it for me. It was a lovely book to read, and I learnt so much about rural Norwegian culture and the place and time and conditions that my Norsk ancestor left all those years ago. For any of its faults, this is a book that I was genuinely sad to finish. It felt long, but the kind of long book that you look forward to reading each night and hope will never end.
I give it four stars.
This English translation of The Bell in the Lake is out on March 19, 2020.
Thank you to Hachette and Netgalley giving me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.