Category Archives: Norwegian authors

Hooked by moody tale of family secrets [book review]

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

 

16 trees of the sommeOne of the things I love about reading is how it opens up new areas of knowledge.

It could introduce  you to places you know nothing about or enlighten you about a period in history.

In the case of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, my enlightenment concerned wood.

Not just any old wood. Two very special kinds of wood called flame birch and flame walnut.

I’ve never seen furniture manufactured from either of these woods but when polished,  the natural patterns that are revealed seem spectacularly beautiful.

It looked like a painting whose meaning is individual to each beholder. From a reddish-orange depth, blue and black lines spiralled outwards wildly, like a blazing fire. The pattern changed depending on where the light struck it. It glinted and new shadows became visible … In the centre of the wood there was a dark, craggy concentration, a maelstrom the colour of dried blood with thin strands swirling around it.

Wood is central to this novel about skeletons in the family closet. It not only plays a key role in the plot, it portrays mood and atmosphere and reveals much about the characters and their attitudes.

The story concerns Edvard Hirifjell, a man in his 20s who was orphaned when his parents died in France in mysterious circumstances. He was with them at the time but when missing for four days, eventually being discovered in the office of a local doctor. The child was taken in by his taciturn grandfather Bestefar to live on the family farm in a remote mountain valley, tending sheep and becoming an expert in potato crops.

When Bestefar dies, Edvard discovers that there is a beautiful, highly ornate coffin already waiting at the undertakers. It’s been designed and made by his grandfather’s estranged brother Einar, a fabulously skilled cabinetmaker.  Further discoveries follow in the form of letters which hint at a family connection to a concentration camp, an assumed identity and a missing inheritance.

As the young man begins to piece together his past, he travels first to the Shetland Islands and then to the battlefields of the Somme.

This novel works on so many levels.

It’s cleverly plotted with plenty of surprises building the momentum towards the concluding revelations.

It has an empathetic central character whose quest to know the truth about his family, is also a process of self-discovery.

The historical context is so well integrated it never feels as if we’re being educated about the battles of the Somme or the centuries-old connection between Norway and the Shetlands.

And then there is the  keen observation of the natural landscape and the forces of nature. Storms batter the Shetland Islands, whipping the sea into a seething, frothing mass that looks as if it will  “swallow the whole island.” In its wake lie swathes of land where peat has been ripped up and tossed into the water and the beach is scrubbed clean.

Not what you want to encounter on your summer holidays. Much better to head for the lushness of Norway:

….  fruit trees, the pea pods that dangled like half moons when we got close to them, so plentiful that we could fill up on them without taking a step. The dark-blue fruit of the plum trees, the sagging raspberry bushes just waiting for us to quickly fill two small plates and fetch some caster sugar and cream.

This is a melancholy novel at times.  Edvard barely remembers his parents except as fleeting images.

For me my mother was a scent, she was a warmth. A leg I clung to. A breath of something blue; a dress I remember her wearing. She fired me into the world with a bowstring, I told myself, and when I shaped my memories of her, I did not know if they were true, I simply created her as I thought a son should remember his mother.

His desire to uncover the truth about his parents is more than a desire to put substance and shape to those memories. He’s always felt a sense of alienation, of not quite belonging. His journey into the past is a way of slaying his fears and setting him on a new path to the future.

I’d never heard of Lars Mytting or this book until I spotted it while browsing in a bookshop. So I had no idea he was already a best selling author based on a non fiction book called Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. The Sixteen Tres of the Somme is his first novel to be published in English. Go out and buy it – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik

 

blue-montageThe Blue Room is a short psychological novel about a naive young girl and the troubling relationship with her mother.

Johanne and mum live together in an apartment in Oslo ( we don’t get to know what happened to dad). Johanne is a psychology student who is fascinated by the concepts to which she is introduced on her course and even if she sometimes struggles with the material she is required to read she is determined to finish her course.

Shes rather a lonely figure. She cycles to college, goes to the library, attends lectures and then cycles home. She has no life outside college, the apartment and her church: no social life and only one close friend who is about to become a priest and move away from the city. She yearns to be independent yet also feels a strong pull of responsibility towards her mother.

The relationship with her mother is in fact the key theme of this book. Johanne veers between wanting to earn her mother’s approval and to be a good daughter even if that means tip toeing around her likes and dislikes but at the same time she resents how her mother dominates her life.

Her voice seemed to stick to the walls, so its imprint would be permanent and I’d hear it whenever I walked past, Mum’s voice screaming at me, echoing between the walls, like the noise of a helicopter scouring the terrain, nothing escaping its scrutiny.

Matters come to a head when Johanne acquires a boyfriend with whom she quickly becomes besotted and experiences an intense sexual awakening. She agrees to go off to the USA with him for three weeks but on the morning she is due to leave she wakes to find she has been locked in her bedroom. There is no means of escape since the room is on the fourth story of the apartment block. As the day proceeds she has many hours in which she reflects on her life and her future.

How much  of her account we can rely upon is questionable. Johanne paints her mother as a manipulative, predator figure who questions every action her daughter takes. But Johanne also has a vivid imagination, especially regarding the sexual exploits of others – during a church service for example she imagines the choir boys in paedophiliac situations, she also has a vision of a young girl chained in a room visited by men looking for sex. Has her mother locked her in because she is jealous or fearful of the relationship with a boy she has known for only three weeks or is it thet she is genuinely afraid the girl cannot cope with life? Indeed Johanne herself admits that her grip on life is none too firm:

I have to struggle for what they (her fellow students) take for granted. I have to play it safe. Have to stay on track., every day. Its the little steps that count, straight ahead … anything else would result in stepping off course, which would lead to another little step and another and another. I’d lose my balance completely ….. They play with life, with possibilities. For me, my studies are like a tightrope I am balancing on, life will begin only when I’ve reached the other side. Only when I’m standing there triumphantly, only then I think to myself will I be free.

Even by the end of this short book we are not entirely certain whether she will be able to get to the other of that tightrope or will always be dangling in the middle.

This is a terrific book, especially for people who enjoy unreliable narrators and books that don’t end with neatly tied conclusions. Kudos to the team at Peirene Press for ringing this work to an international audience. Such a shame that there is nothing else by Hanne Ørstavik yet available in English. I would be first in the queue if there were.

Footnotes

The Book: The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik was published in June 2014.

The Author:  Hanne Ørstavik is one of Norway’s leading writers. Since publication of her first book in 1969 she has received several prizes including the Brage Prize, her country’s most prestigious literary prize.

My edition: From Pereine Press as title number 14 their coming of age series. The translater is Deborah Dawkin.

Why I read this: I bought a few Pereine editions in 2015 but have never got around to reading them. The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by Hard Book Habit galvanised me into action.

 

 

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