Title: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme
Author: Lars Mytting
Publisher: Hachette Australia: MacLehose Press
Published: 8th August, 2017
Synopsis: A 20th-century family saga of epic scale, by the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD.
By Norway’s bestselling novelist and the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD, a family story of epic scale.
Edvard grows up on a remote mountain farmstead in Norway with his taciturn grandfather, Sverre. The death of his parents, when he was three years old, has always been shrouded in mystery – he has never been told how or where it took place and has only a distant memory of his mother.
But he knows that the fate of his grandfather’s brother, Einar, is somehow bound up with this mystery. One day a coffin is delivered for his grandfather long before his death – a meticulous, beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Perhaps Einar is not dead after all.
Edvard’s desperate quest to unlock the family’s tragic secrets takes him on a long journey – from Norway to the Shetlands, and to the battlefields of France – to the discovery of a very unusual inheritance. THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME is about the love of wood and finding your own self, a beautifully intricate and moving tale that spans an entire century.
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett
The story that Norwegian author, Lars Mytting weaves is unusual, yet lyrical. In 1991, a young man, Edvard Hirjifell, begins an odyssey of discovery about his past, and the family he never knew, following the death of his grandfather, Bestefor. The mystery of his parents death begins the trip, and leads him to search for his grandfather’s brother, Einar, whom he hopes has not died, and will help him link the pieces of his past together. Edvard’s journey spans Norway, France and the Shetlands, discovering an unusual inheritance on the blood-drenched soils of the Somme from 1916, and a family legacy tainted by two world wars, and the horrors some of his ancestors were forced to go through. At times he finds himself questioning his identity, and as he finds people linked to his family, the puzzle pieces of his early life in 1971 begin to fall into place.
Translated into English from Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett, The Sixteen Trees of the Somme was more character than plot driven, lending itself to literary fiction, and the subtlety within the writing that hinted at what was to come, what had happened and who someone was. As a result, the story was slowly revealed, each detail placed specifically to ensure maximum impact on the reader.
Initially I chose this book based on its title, hinting towards a story about the Somme and those who were there – however, both world wars were only mentioned implicitly in the early sections, and it was about half way into the story before the Battle of the Somme and the events of World War Two started to link up to Edvard’s family history, and what his French and Jewish ancestors had experienced, and how a soldier who had been at the Somme had come to impact his early life, and his link to that family. It became less about the wars themselves and more about the individuals in Edvard’s life who had been marked by war and tragedy. Through the eyes of Edvard, it reveals not only the tragedy and futility of war and sending young men off to fight, or punishing people for resisting a heinous regime, but the futility of being human, and the flaws we all have that an impact on the decisions we make and the way we act.
Translated books allow people who don’t speak the primary language of the author to read stories they may otherwise not get to engage with, and this is a bonus of having these books available. Some translations are exceptionally done, and capture the essence of the book, and as a reader, you can get a sense of the movement of the story. The Sixteen Trees of the Somme achieves this, and through a serious a sombre tone, communicated the desolation felt by Edvard and those whose stories and lives had shaped his.
Lars Mytting has created a story that crosses a century, and through the eyes of the main character, reveals how different people reacted to the history and to those they knew had been involved. The image at the beginning of a swastika on Bestefor’s car is indicative of wounds that have not healed, but that could also hint at remnants of other attitudes that were around during this time, and is just one example of the slow reveal techniques used in the novel, which did give it a slow pace, but it suited the story and style of the novel, and as such, I found it to be well written and engaging.