This beautifully written novel, translated from the original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is the first in a planned trilogy based around the legend of the Sister Bells. The bells commemorate conjoined twin sisters Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, who lived in the remote village of Butangen and died within hours of each other. Their family donated the bells to the local church in memory of the twins and they are still hanging there, in the bell tower, in 1880 when the novel begins…
As the rest of the world heads towards the twentieth century, Butangen appears to be frozen in time, a place where life is still ruled by superstition and folklore, where people still believe in evil spirits and ill omens. When Kai Schweigaard, an ambitious young pastor, arrives in the village he despairs of ever bringing change to a population so resistant to progress and modern ways of thinking.
If only people had light, he thought. If there was a strong lamp in every home, which could illuminate faces and edifying books, I could banish these mad notions in a few years. But at sunset the village grew dark, and with it folk’s minds, and these unknown powers ruled until sunrise.
One of the ways in which Kai hopes to improve life in the village is by replacing the ancient 12th century stave church where a parishioner actually froze to death during Mass with a larger, warmer, more comfortable building. The old church, complete with its pagan carvings and twin bells, is to be dismantled and reconstructed in Dresden, and a young German architect – Gerhard Schönauer – has arrived to make drawings of the church before it is taken down. However, Kai and Gerhard face opposition not only from the people of Butangen, who are suspicious and resentful of anything new, but also from the Sister Bells themselves. The bells are said to have supernatural powers and to ring on their own when danger is approaching – and it seems that the bells don’t want to be removed.
As well as the two men, a large part of the story is also written from the perspective of twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne, who works as a maid in Kai Schweigaard’s household at the parsonage. Despite the differences in their social standing, Kai is considering making Astrid his wife, but complications arise when Astrid finds herself drawn to Gerhard Schönauer. Meanwhile, as a descendant of the twins Halfrid and Gunhild, Astrid feels a responsibility for the bells and decides she must do whatever it takes to prevent Gerhard from transporting them to Dresden with the rest of the church.
The Bell in the Lake is a wonderfully atmospheric novel thanks to Lars Mytting’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape around Butangen, particularly in winter with its frozen lakes and snow-covered hills and valleys, while the supernatural elements and the role of the Sister Bells legend give the story an eerie and mysterious feel. The sense of time is as strong as the sense of place and the characters feel like real 19th century people, rather than modern day people dropped into a random historical setting. However, I think the decision to have Astrid and the other villagers speak in a dialect which seems to be mainly Scottish is a bit strange. I suppose the translator had to find a way to differentiate between the speech of the local people and the outsiders (who speak in standard English), and using Scottish words makes sense because of the close ties with Norway, but I found it slightly distracting and kept forgetting that Astrid was actually Norwegian!
One of my favourite themes in fiction is the conflict between old ways of life and new, and in this novel we see how the inhabitants of Butangen are reluctant to move away from the traditions they have always followed and try to resist any kind of social, scientific or religious progress. Although Astrid has been brought up with the same beliefs, she has a more adventurous spirit than most of her neighbours and longs to see more of the world, which is what draws her to Gerhard. The demolition of the old church, which Gerhard has come to oversee, and the building of the new one is symbolic of all of this. If you’ve never seen a Norwegian stave church, by the way, I recommend googling them – they look amazing and it’s sad to think that there are so few of them left.
Having enjoyed The Bell in the Lake so much, I am looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy and hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next one!
Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.