The Bell in the Lake

Written by Lars Mytting
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Mytting has a thing about wood. He is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book Norwegian Wood, and his first novel was The Sixteen Trees of the Somme. The Bell in the Lake, set in Butangen, Norway, in 1880, centres on the fate of a farming community’s stave church, an exemplar of wooden buildings dating from the Middle Ages (some estimates suggest there were once close to two thousand examples in Norway alone). Life is hard: in winter the dead remain unburied until the ground thaws. The sturdy, restless and forthright Astrid Hekne dreams of a life beyond the bounds of domesticity and working the unforgiving land. It was her ancestor who forged the twin bells in the church’s tower, in memory of his conjoined daughters; the bells are said to have supernatural powers. Two strangers disrupt Astrid’s existence, and she theirs: the new pastor, Kai Schweigaard, with his modernising ideas, and then Gerhard Schӧnauer, architectural student from Dresden, on the trail of the church’s extraordinary carvings (think Kilpeck, but in wood).

Mytting’s imagery (in Deborah Dawkin’s limpid translation) is beautiful: ‘Age left no trace in stone, for that the stone itself was already too old, but it made its mark in wood as in a human face.’ The church is to be demolished, and reconstructed piece by numbered piece, in Dresden, but it is the fate of the Sister Bells which will determine the destiny of the three main characters. Mytting’s novel was based on local stories, but it is his evoking of the parsonage interior, the turn of the seasons and their physical impress on man and beast that give this book its vividness. I am grateful that this novel, whilst self-contained, is the first in a trilogy. I also rather hope that someone will sensitively film it.

(Note: the US release date is Sept. 29, 2020.)