Posted by BookerTalk
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting
One 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.