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The Bell in the Lake
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B+ : a very good read; sentimental but admirably unsentimentally told
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The Bell in the Lake begins with a short chapter recounting the origin of a pair of bells -- the 'Sister Bells' (so also the Norwegian title of the novel) -- that ring for centuries in a church deep in rural Norway, in Butangen.
(The use of the singular, and the mention of a lake that only really figures late in the novel, perhaps make for a more resonant title, but it arguably also gets way ahead of the story .....)
The backstory is pretty sensational, as far as bell-backstories go, and nicely quickly recounted by Mytting.
It begins with a birth -- a violent, terrible one ("Too ghastly to be told, too ugly to be remembered") killing the mother.
The child that is born is a doubled one, Siamese twins joined not just at but from the hip down, baptized as Halfrid and Gunhild Hekne.
They nevertheless lead a reasonably normal life, becoming expert weavers -- "their four arms flying in perfect time between warp and weft".
When they died, their father, Eirik Hekne, had two church bells cast; these were named the 'Sister Bells' -- "and they rang with a unique richness and depth of tone".
Over the years, they also sometimes ring of their own accord -- warning of great dangers, close and far .....
He had, from the very first day, been troubled by the monstruous carvings, by the traces of the old Norse faith, by the organ bellows which were regularly torn, so that the chorals died out in strangled tones. This was not a functional church. It could not serve his plans.The building is also freezing cold in the very cold Norwegian winters, and apparently far too small to fit the congregation -- not even a tenth of the parish has room in it, despite a law that mandates churches must accommodate at least a third of the population. (For such a remote, rural speck of Norway -- from which, Mytting repeatedly notes, a vast number of citizens continue to emigrate to America --, Butangen is presented as a ridiculously over-populated town, with no end of baptisms and funerals; from the numbers it would appear to be teeming with people, though the reality was surely that such areas were increasingly sparsely populated (if still too densely so to be well-sustained by the land); as the (US) Library of Congress reports: "More than one-ninth of Norway's total population, 176,000 people, came [to the US] in the 1880s" alone.) Part of the austere Lutheran tradition -- in which churches are functional and little more --, Schweigaard has different ideas. He also has a nice offer on the table: there are some folks in Dresden who want the church, and are willing to pay to have it disassembled and shipped down to Germany; the welcome funds would readily pay for a larger, utilitarian structure to replace it on site. The Norwegian church authorities are on board with the plan, and so that is put into action, with a young German art and architecture student, Gerhard Schönauer, sent north in the spring to oversee the dismantling and document where each piece goes so that it can be put back together again back in Germany.
The priest and the young German artist are two of the main figures in the novel; the third is feisty Astrid Hekne, a descendent of Eirik. The Hekne family is still a venerable one, but they've come down a bit in the world; they get by, but, like most everyone else in the area, struggle, especially through the long, harsh winters. Astrid is the eldest girl, and does her duty in the family -- everyone has to pitch in for them to survive -- but she seems to be the only one that has inherited the once proud wild streak in the family. She dreams of more, too: "she felt -- more and more -- that she was in the wrong place and wrong century"; she would seem to fit in better in forefather Eirik's times (to which she feels an obvious connection), or much more modern ones.
Butangen is the kind of place where the new pastor so often finds: "the spiritual defeated by the practical". Winter lingers on early in the story, and life is difficult in the terrible conditions. The cold also makes it impossible to, for example, bury the dead, who keep piling up. Mytting doesn't wallow in this misery, but he does make the harsh situation and conditions crystal clear.
Schweigaard is engaged, but Butangen is no place for his fiancée; he can only think of marrying her once he has a more comfortable position. In Butangen, he finds himself attracted to the smart and curious Astrid, who is employed in the household when he gets there (but then let go when the head housekeeper judges master and servant are getting too close). She also finds herself drawn to him, but is cautious in her behavior, well aware that every move and meeting is observed by someone in this very gossipy town: very little personal information can be kept secret for long.
Astrid is shocked by the plan to tear down and ship off the church -- and even more so that the bells, a gift from her family many generations earlier, have been sold along with the church. She's desperate to keep the bells locally, and eventually comes up with a plan which just might see to that, as there's one more valuable piece of the church that's gone missing over the years, and she knows how Schönauer can get it. The bargain is a decent and practical one, switching out the old bells for the newer ones which the church had obtained to take their place.
Young Schönauer is a bit overwhelmed by the task with which he has been entrusted. The job is a complicated one, the structure one like nothing he's ever seen or learnt about:
I'll never understand its construction, he thought. This church is one single intertwined mass, dipped in a secret-recipe varnish that hides any trace of method or craft, not a single splice or butt joint reveals the thoughts that were behind its making.Astrid is intrigued by the foreigner, and unsurprisingly he is also attracted to her. A classic love triangle, if under very unusual conditions, emerges. As with much else in the novel, Mytting (mostly) shows an admirable restraint here, not overdoing it with the passion. So also each of those involved are very aware of their positions, and the complication any romantic involvement would bring with it, from Schweigaard's awareness that his fiancée would be a much more appropriate wife for a pastor on the career-path he can expect to find himself on to Astrid's awareness that life in Dresden would be very different and probably lonely for her compared to the life she knows here.
Astrid does her part to save the bells, enlisting the two men as necessary, but the plan is upset at the near last minute. The men who sent Schönauer to prepare for the moving of the church also suddenly show up when it's time to start the dismantling, as the young student begins to realize he won't be getting quite as much credit for the undertaking as he expected, nudged aside at the last minute. It turns out also that the men very much had their eyes on the storied bells -- and Astrid's clever plan is undone in a (soon much regretted) moment of pique.
Adding to the drama: Astrid has gotten herself knocked up, and now has even more serious reason to be concerned about her future, and the future of her children -- as she is certain she is carrying twins. The novel culminates with her dramatic giving birth, just as the pieces of the church are being moved, and then the aftermath of both .....
The Bell in the Lake is divided into three parts, presented as three stories: 'The Innermost Landscape', 'The Fall', and 'There Must Be Somebody'. The concluding one is by far the shortest, itself divided only into three chapters and zipping rapidly along. Where the rest of the novel barely covers a single year, the final part then telescopes several; it is, obviously, more stage-setting than conclusion, as Mytting clearly means to continue his bell-saga with the next generation (and, indeed, this is reportedly the first volume in a planned trilogy). If the first short chapter quickly summed up the story behind the bell's origins and the Hekne-sisters who inspired them, then The Bell in the Lake is the next big chapter in the myth surrounding them, setting the stage for what happens next. (The bells themselves become, in a sense, characters in the novel, showing a propensity to ring or otherwise communicate in some way, especially once things really get going -- a slightly awkward supernatural element that Mytting just gets away with by not considering it too closely.)
The ending -- the conclusion Mytting reaches in creating his springboard for the next installment -- is arguably a bit too neat (and, yes, the English title of the book way too revealing), and it seems pretty clear where this is then heading, specifically in what's next for the bell(s), but already in The Bell in the Lake Mytting has demonstrated that even at its most predictable he tells a yarn damn well, so readers will be eager to see just how he works things out (and what else he tosses in).
In both outline and many of its details The Bell in the Lake is simple and even sappy, but Mytting's saving grace is his willingness to be Nordicly unsentimental. He does not shy away from just how harsh life is in this place and these times, and presents the consequences matter of factly. Sad things happen, but there's not much time to linger over them; for life to go on, it has to go on. So this is not a novel with much moping -- and its three main characters understand that quite well, taking charge when necessary and doing what needs be done; most impressively, Mytting allows even that to often not be nearly enough.
The Bell in the Lake is a real page-turner. Mytting keeps the action moving, and brings enough emotion and passion into play to fully engage readers. Each of the three main characters is relatively young, on the cusp of adult life -- in the form of family and career -- and torn by the choices that seem open to them; the fates he has in store for them are more daring than many a novelist would have risked -- but it's worth it, in helping keep the story from becoming too simply mawkish. Most of the secondary characters are quite well presented too, the various generational and professional conflicts neatly drawn and not too simply black and white. And Mytting is quite the master of the quickly-sketched atmosphere: much of the novel is set in deep winter, and he conveys the cold exceptionally well; this is an ideal in-front-of-the-roaring-fireplace read. The church and its unusual construction, and the complications that makes for -- from Schönauer's initial frustrations in figuring it all out to the actual de- and then re-construction work -- are fascinating but also not excessive; this is a major part of the plot, but does not overwhelm the novel, as Mytting very much remains character-focused in his narrative.
The Bell in the Lake is all still steeped dreadfully in the sentimental -- but just unsentimental enough, in presentation and plot, to avoid devolving simply into sweet-sticky goo. This is relatively light fiction, mostly staying very much on the surface, but it's very good as such. It is a story that is itself based on myth and tradition, and even if it does get stuck a bit in that -- The Bell in the Lake is old fashioned, in both the best and worst ways --, it is, even if it can feel simplistic, never bland. Thoroughly enjoyable, it's a nice read -- ideal winter pass-time fare.
- M.A.Orthofer, 16 October 2020
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Norwegian author Lars Mytting was born in 1968.
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