Title: The Bell in the Lake
Author: Lars Mytting
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 10th March 2020
Synopsis: The first in a rich historical trilogy that draws on legend, by the author of NORWEGIAN WOOD and THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME.
Norway, 1880. In the secluded village of Butangen at the end of the valley, headstrong Astrid dreams of a life beyond marriage, hard work and children. And then Pastor Kai Schweigaard comes into her life, taking over the 700-year-old stave church with its carvings of pagan deities. The two church bells were forged by her forefather in the sixteenth century, in memory of conjoined sisters Halfrid and Gunhild Hekne, and are said to have supernatural powers. But now the pastor wants to tear it down, to replace it with a modern, larger church. Though Astrid is drawn to him, this may be a provocation too far.
Talented architecture student Gerhard Schonauer arrives from Dresden to oversee the removal of the church and its reconstruction in the German city. Everything about elegant Schonauer is so different, so cosmopolitan. Astrid must make a choice: for her homeland and the pastor, or for a daunting and uncertain future in Germany.
Then the bells begin to toll…
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
In Norway in 1880, society is changing. Astrid Hekne, the main character, dreams of a life beyond what society has in mind for her. That is, until she meets the new pastor, Kai Schweigaard to take care of an old church with pagan carvings. Here, the intersection of the old Norse ways from hundreds of years ago, and Christian traditions meet beneath the Sister Bells that Astrid’s ancestor made. They memorialise two conjoined Henke sisters. Astrid wants to try and stop their destruction.
Yet when a German architect arrives the plans to reconstruct it in Dresden are revealed. As their lives collide, and Astrid is forced into making a decision, the bells begin to tell and a fate that has been hanging over Astrid’s head begins to shape what is to come.
Told in three parts, each made up of multiple short sections or chapters, The Bell in the Lake was translated from the original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, and is a complex and lyrical story, exploring the lives of Astrid, Kai and Gerhard as they navigate the complexities of moving a church and how faith shapes a small community and the driving force of society to determine how people act and what is to come. Interspersed with Astrid’s story – a woman determined to be her own person and move ahead of her time, is the rich history of stave churches and what they meant to their societies. It is dense with history and plot, and many complexities that lead to an ending that was a bit surprising and needed a couple of reads to understand it, but it packed a powerful punch about the realities of the setting and how belief can be a powerful factor in what ends up happening to us.
The intersection of ancient and new religions – of a pantheon of gods versus a singular god, and how these two religions somehow came together – or how one more likely took over and appropriated another in order to convert those who were faithful to the older ways to a new, and what was seen at the time, more acceptable way of thinking. This mainly came through Kai and Gerhard but bubbled below the surface of the other characters and how their beliefs in older ways and legends informed how they wanted to live their lives.
The nineteenth century setting feels authentic – and the cold of Norway expressed throughout is biting and can be felt through the words, and there is a sense of isolation within the novel that Astrid longs to break away from. It is a unique novel and very dense with detail, character and setting – which work in this instance as it allows setting and character to be as important as the plot.