The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

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.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I am always drawn to books with pretty covers like this one, even though I know that the story inside doesn’t always live up to the promise of the cover. This one, set in 17th century Norway, did sound fascinating, though, so I hoped that in this case it would be as good as it looked!

The novel opens in December 1617 in the remote island town of Vardø, in the far northeast of Norway. It is Christmas Eve but the men of the island have gone out to sea as usual in search of the fish on which their livelihood depends. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter watches from her window as she sits by the fire with her mother and sister-in-law mending torn sails. Suddenly there’s a flash of lightning and Maren and her mother run to the window…

And then maybe both of them are screaming but there is no sound save the sea and the sky and all the boat lights swallowed and the boats flashing and the boats spinning, the boats flying, turning, gone.

The effects of that Christmas Eve storm are disastrous both for Maren, who loses her father and brother, and for the town of Vardø as a whole. Where the male population of the town used to be fifty-three, now only thirteen remain – and those thirteen consist of babies, young boys and elderly men. Now the women of Vardø have two choices: abandon the island and start a new life somewhere else – or stay and do the work of the men themselves, so that their community can survive.

Meanwhile, far away in Bergen, a young woman called Ursa is marrying a man chosen for her by her father. The man’s name is Absalom Cornet and he has been summoned from Scotland to take up a position as Commissioner of Vardø. When they arrive in Vardø, Ursa is struck by the strength and independence of the women she meets there and the resilience they have shown in coping with such a terrible tragedy. Commissioner Cornet, though, views the women differently – and when Ursa discovers the true nature of the work her husband has carried out in Scotland and why he has been brought to Norway, she becomes afraid for her new friends.

The Mercies is based on real historical events – the 1617 storm which almost wiped out all the men of Vardø really happened, and so did some of the things that take place later in the novel. I loved the descriptions of the island and the portrayal of a small, superstitious society where outsiders and anyone deemed to be different – such as Maren’s sister-in-law, an indigenous Sámi woman – are regarded with suspicion. It was particularly interesting to see things from two such different perspectives: Maren, who has lived in Vardø all her life, and Ursa, to whom everything is strange and unfamiliar. However, despite the drama and tragedy of Maren’s storyline, she never really came to life for me and I couldn’t quite warm to her; I found Ursa more sympathetic as she struggled to fit into her new community and to come to terms with her knowledge of the sort of man she had married.

This is the first book I’ve read by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (she has previously written YA novels and this is her first one aimed at adults) and I thought her writing was beautiful at times, but I really wish authors would stop writing in present tense; I find it so distracting and distancing! Still, there’s a lot of atmosphere – I think books set in countries like Norway and Iceland do tend to have a certain atmosphere – but apart from those vivid opening scenes describing the storm and its aftermath, I felt that the rest of the story was one I’d read several times before. As soon as I found out who and what Absalom Cornet was, I could predict what was going to happen and I was right.

If you read The Mercies and enjoy it, I would recommend reading The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea too; I thought the two books had a very similar feel and if you like one you will probably like the other.

Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter I have always loved long books, the sort you can bury yourself in for weeks, becoming immersed in a fully-formed fictional world and getting to know characters who, by the time you reach the final page, feel almost like personal friends. Kristin Lavransdatter, though, is more than just a ‘long’ book – it’s a very long book! With over 1,100 pages in the edition I read, it’s similar in length to classics like War and Peace, Don Quixote and Les Miserables and left me with a similar mixture of feelings on finishing: a sense of achievement at making it to the end; sadness at having to say goodbye to Kristin and her family; and, I have to admit, relief at finally being able to move on to something else. I enjoyed Kristin Lavransdatter – loved it at times – but it’s not always an easy book to read, for reasons which I’ll explain below.

So far I have been describing this as a ‘book’, but in fact Sigrid Undset originally wrote three individual books about Kristin – The Wreath (first published in 1920), The Wife (1921) and The Cross (1922) – which have been combined into one volume in this Penguin Classics edition. It’s still possible to buy them separately (and it would probably seem less daunting that way) but they don’t stand alone very well at all and really do feel like three sections of a longer novel. After finishing the first part I moved straight on to the second and then the third and I was glad I took this approach otherwise I would probably have lost track of what was happening.

Set in the 14th century, Kristin Lavransdatter is, unsurprisingly, the story of Kristin, daughter of Lavrans. We first meet Kristin as a young girl growing up on her parents’ manor at Jorundgaard in Sil, a rural area of Norway. A good, honourable, hard-working man, Lavrans gains respect and admiration wherever he goes and he and Kristin are very close. His wife, Ragnfrid, however, has never fully recovered from the loss of three young sons and as a result her relationships with both Lavrans and Kristin are strained.

Early in the novel, Kristin is betrothed to the quiet, reliable Simon Darre, whose family own a neighbouring estate. She has no reason to dislike Simon, but she feels nothing for him and longs to experience the sort of passion her own parents’ marriage lacks. Her chance comes when she meets and falls in love with Erlend Nikulausson, a man who is handsome, charming and romantic – in other words, everything Simon isn’t. Kristin knows that this is the husband she has been dreaming of and even the knowledge that he has been excommunicated by the church for living with another man’s wife doesn’t change her mind. When Simon finds out about Erlend he agrees to break off the betrothal, but it takes a lot longer for Kristin to persuade Lavrans and Ragnfrid – so long that by the time she is eventually allowed to marry Erlend she is already pregnant with his child.

In case you’re thinking I’ve given away too much of the plot, all of the above happens in The Wreath alone. The other two parts of the book – The Wife and The Cross – explore the consequences of Kristin’s decision to marry Erlend rather than Simon. And the consequences are varied and far-reaching, affecting not only Kristin herself but everyone else around her. It’s a sad and tragic story and this is one of the reasons why, as I mentioned earlier, this is not the easiest of books to read. Whether it’s a death, an illness or an accident, a murder, an act of betrayal or an unhappy marriage, each and every character is subjected to a relentless stream of misery.

My heart ached for Kristin as she discovered that the man she had married was not all that she had hoped he would be – not a hero but a flawed human being – and that making their relationship work was going to be difficult. However, I also had some sympathy for Erlend; he is not a bad man but he is sometimes a weak one, with a tendency to act before he thinks and with none of the skills necessary to manage a farm and household effectively. He makes mistakes and has to live with those mistakes, but so does Kristin and I thought it was unfair of her to place so much of the blame on him. I also felt sorry for their young children, for Simon (who ended up being one of my favourite characters) and for Kristin’s sister, Ramborg. As I said, this is not a happy story for anyone!

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

As we accompany Kristin on her journey through life, we are also given a lot of information on the history and politics of the period. This becomes increasingly important as Erlend finds himself embroiled in a plot against the king and, I have to admit, I found some of this difficult to follow. If I read the book again (as I’m sure I will want to at some point in the future) I’ll have to concentrate more on that aspect of the story. Of more interest to me was the portrayal of daily life in the valleys and mountains of medieval Norway, a way of life strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, but also steeped in superstition and folklore. The publication of Kristin Lavransdatter led to Sigrid Undset being awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”.

Finally, I should mention that Kristin Lavransdatter was originally written in Norwegian. The English translation I read was a recent one by Tiina Nunnally and I had no problems with it; I thought it was very clear and readable. I’ve heard that the earlier translation from the 1920s by Charles Archer and JS Scott is not as accessible, so I’m happy that I made the right choice.

Kristin Lavransdatter was the book selected for me in the Classics Club Spin back in March – and it kept me busy until June! Now I’m looking forward to starting my next Spin book: Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger.

The Storm Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Storm Sister The Storm Sister is the second book in Lucinda Riley’s ambitious new series, The Seven Sisters. Based on the mythology surrounding the Pleiades (or ‘seven sisters’) star cluster, each novel in the series will tell the story of one of the adopted daughters of a reclusive millionaire known only as Pa Salt. Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse have all been named after one of the stars in the constellation and have grown up together at Pa Salt’s estate, Atlantis, near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The first book, which I read last year, is Maia’s story; The Storm Sister is Ally’s.

The beginning of this novel is very similar to the first: the sisters have been informed of Pa Salt’s death and have all hurried home to Atlantis, where they find that their adoptive father has left each of them a set of clues which will enable them to discover the truth about their own origins. At first, Ally’s clues mean nothing to her: a small brown frog and a pair of coordinates directing her to a museum in Norway. She is intrigued but has no time to investigate because, as a professional sailor, she is preparing to take part in one of the biggest yacht races of her career. When tragedy strikes, however, Ally decides to travel to Norway where she attempts to unravel the secrets of her past.

Following the trail left by Pa Salt, Ally learns of a talented young singer, Anna Landvik, who sang at the premiere of Peer Gynt more than a hundred years earlier. It seems that Anna’s story – and that of Jens Halvorsen, one of the musicians in the orchestra – could be linked to Ally’s own, but Ally is not quite sure what the connection could be. With the help of Thom Halvorsen, who tells her he is the great-great-grandson of Jens, Ally is able to fill in the gaps and in the process makes some surprising discoveries that will change the course of her own life.

I enjoyed The Storm Sister but I think I preferred the first book in the series (I suppose in a seven-book series it’s understandable that I’m going to like some more than others). The Storm Sister is a very long novel and I think I would have been happier if less time had been spent at the beginning of the book on Ally’s sailing and her romance with her fellow sailor, Theo. It seemed to take such a long time for the historical storyline to begin! I did become much more engrossed in Ally’s story in later sections of the book, though; I loved the way things came together towards the end and the links between several different generations of Halvorsens grew stronger.

The Anna and Jens storyline was fascinating and made me want to pause in my reading and listen to parts of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt to help me imagine Anna singing Solveig’s Song and Jens playing the opening bars of Morning Mood on his flute. There is a musical theme running throughout the entire book and I was reminded of one of Lucinda Riley’s other novels, The Italian Girl, in that respect.

As part of a larger series, I had hoped that this book might shed more light on some of the central mysteries. Who was Pa Salt? What were the true circumstances surrounding his death and burial at sea? And what happened to the seventh sister, who should have been called Merope? However, we don’t learn much more about any of these things in this book; based on the two that I’ve read, it seems that each novel will stand alone and can be read in any order – presumably until we reach the seventh book when our questions should finally be answered!

Book three will focus on Star, or Asterope, and I’m already looking forward to it. Star is not one of the strongest characters among the sisters, but I like her and I think her story will be an interesting one.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of The Storm Sister.

Burned by Thomas Enger

Burned is the first in a new series of crime novels by Norwegian author Thomas Enger. This book is set in Oslo and introduces us to Henning Juul, a journalist working for 123news, an internet-based newspaper. When we first meet Henning he is trying to come to terms with the tragic death of his son, Jonas, in a house fire. On his first day back at work after a long absence, he is asked to cover the story of a young woman who has been found brutally murdered in a tent on Ekeberg Common. Henning’s research leads him from Oslo’s Muslim community to the world of film-making, but will his investigations make him the killer’s next target?

This series has a lot of potential and I’m pleased I could be there at the beginning rather than coming in halfway through the series which is what usually seems to happen to me! Although I didn’t think it was an outstanding book, there was a lot to like about Burned and I’m pleased to have discovered another Scandinavian crime writer whose work I enjoy. With its short chapters and fast-paced plot the book was difficult to put down and despite its length was a quick read.

There were plenty of twists and turns in the plot which helped to keep me interested, but while plot twists can be an important element of a good crime novel, I thought there were too many towards the end of the book. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what was supposed to be happening and I started to get slightly confused. The writing doesn’t always flow very well either, though this could be due to the translation (the book has been translated from the original Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund).

I enjoyed the descriptions of daily life in an internet newspaper office and the processes involved in researching, writing and publishing news items. I’ve never worked as a journalist but it all seemed quite realistic to me (which is to be expected as I believe Thomas Enger has experience in journalism himself). I also really liked Henning Juul and found him an intriguing character. I was left thinking that there must be a lot of aspects of his history and his personality still to explore, and that is why I’m already looking forward to the publication of the second book in the series.

I received a copy of this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Review: I’ll Never Be Young Again by Daphne du Maurier

I’ll Never Be Young Again was Daphne du Maurier’s second novel, written when she was only twenty three years old. It’s different from the other books of hers that I’ve read so far. It doesn’t have the suspense or the gothic feel of some of her other works – this is more of a psychological, character-driven book. It’s the story of Richard, a young man who has grown up in the shadow of his famous father, and his struggle to find his own identity. I’m not really a fan of ‘coming-of-age’ novels, but I’m glad I chose to read this one. It certainly seems to be one of her least well known novels –  and I was concerned that this might mean it wasn’t very good. Well, I can tell you that it is good and I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to.

The book opens with Richard – or Dick as he prefers to call himself – standing on a bridge, preparing to jump. Immediately the reader is intrigued, wondering what has happened to drive him to suicide.  At the last minute Dick feels a hand on his shoulder – this is Jake, a complete stranger who saves his life and becomes his closest friend. The first half of the book follows the adventures of Dick and Jake as they leave England and sail to Scandinavia together in search of a new life. The second half is the story of Dick’s relationship with Hesta, a girl he meets in Paris.

The whole book is written in the first person from Dick’s perspective, which is significant as it was apparently the first time Daphne du Maurier wrote from a man’s point of view – and I thought she captured the male voice perfectly. The only problem I had was that I just didn’t like Dick very much. I found his immaturity and whining very irritating – although I understood that the point of the book was to follow his development from an insecure, selfish youth into a sensible, mature adult. Eventually he does begin to grow up and want different things out of life, but this comes too late in the book for me to be able to warm to him. However, the book is so well-written I could still enjoy it even with such an unsympathetic narrator. Her writing is absolutely beautiful and quite dreamlike, as she lets us get right inside Dick’s head and share his thoughts and emotions. There are also some vivid descriptions of the mountains and fjords of Norway and the other places that the characters visit, particularly Paris with its cafés and boulevards.

This would probably not be the best Daphne du Maurier book for a newcomer to begin with, but it’s a good choice for someone who wants to venture away from Rebecca and read one of her less popular novels. A word of warning, though – if you’re going to read the Virago Modern Classics edition, leave the introduction until last as it gives away the entire plot, including the ending (this is good advice with any book – I’ve learned from experience never to read the introduction first).

This is my first book for the Daphne du Maurier Challenge hosted by Chris at Book-a-rama. I wasn’t planning to take part in this challenge until I discovered my local library had almost all of her books. I’m looking forward to reading some more of her work during the next year, as there are still a lot of her books I haven’t read yet. This book also counts towards the 1930s challenge as it was a contemporary novel published in 1932 and set in 1930s Europe – and also the Typically British challenge.

Pages: 304/Publisher: Virago Press (Virago Modern Classics 515)/Year: 2005 (originally published 1932)/Source: Library book

Review: The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

“They were going to Bethlehem, to Bethlehem- because that’s where the Christ-child was born.”

The Christmas Mystery begins in Norway on 30th November when a boy named Joachim discovers a hand-made Advent calendar in a book shop. The next day, when Joachim opens the first door, he finds a tiny piece of paper telling the story of a little girl called Elisabet who spots a lamb in a department store. The lamb begins to run away, but Elisabet is determined to stroke it and chases after it. The lamb leads her outside and into the woods where she meets the angel Ephiriel, who explains to her that she is now part of a very special pilgrimage to Bethlehem – not only will they be travelling across land, they will also be travelling back through time to the day when Jesus was born.

As Elisabet, Ephiriel and the lamb move closer to Bethlehem and further back in time, they are joined by an assortment of other Biblical characters including shepherds and Wise Men. A little more of their story is revealed every day through the pieces of paper hidden in Joachim’s advent calendar, but as the tale of Elisabet’s journey unfolds, Joachim and his parents become involved in another mystery: the mystery of John, the mysterious flower-seller who made the magic Advent calendar and the real-life Elisabet who disappeared on Christmas Eve in 1948.

The book is divided into 24 chapters, with each chapter representing one door on the Advent calendar. If you have children, the structure of the book would make it perfect for reading aloud, one chapter per day in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This is not really a ‘children’s book’ though – it’s one of those books that can be enjoyed on different levels by people of all ages. As with all of Jostein Gaarder’s books the story introduces us to a large number of philosophical ideas. We also learn some interesting historical and geographical facts about the countries Elisabet passes through on her way to Bethlehem.
Although this is not as good as some of Gaarder’s other books such as Sophie’s World or The Solitaire Mystery, it has to be one of the most unusual and imaginative Christmas stories I’ve ever read.

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 247/Publisher: Phoenix – Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan & Illustrated by Rosemary Wells/Year: 1996/Source: Bought new